Feel a little hungry? Need something quick? Whether in New York, Bangkok, Dakar or any other large city around the world help is near: just take to the street to satisfy your appetite. 'Street food' has become an increasingly important part of our daily diet, especially in many developing countries, because of the faster pace of life and the migration of villagers to the city.
Prepared and sold on the spot, these foods are tasty and convenient. But a quick meal can easily turn into a nasty bout of food poisoning. Food stalls often lack the storage, refrigeration and cooking facilities needed to prevent bacterial contamination with sometimes deadly bugs such as salmonella. And limited access to running water and sanitary services increases the danger of passing the bacterial threats on to customers.
Over the last 15 years, FAO has embarked on a series of actions aimed at improving the quality of street food. The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets global food safety standards, has produced regional guidance documents on street foods. And on a more practical level, FAO has carried out research studies and helped officials improve the quality of street food in more than two dozen cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In Peru and Bolivia, FAO offered its technical assistance when a serious cholera outbreak in 1991 was traced partly to certain street foods. Over 600 food inspectors and close to 50,000 food handlers from Mexico to Central and South America were trained and the quality of food improved significantly. Unfortunately, momentum waned after the cholera scare abated, so a new campaign was begun to educate consumers about the need to demand higher quality street foods.
In Bangkok, Thailand, studies consistently found unacceptably high levels of bacteria and other toxins in street food. With support from FAO, a Code of Practice for Street Foods, including 10 steps to make street foods healthier, was taught to food inspectors and a public awareness campaign was developed to teach consumers about the importance of improved hygiene.
Many thousands of miles away in Dakar, Senegal, the street food sector is also booming. So too are related problems. Groups of stalls cause traffic jams, waste fouls the streets and sewage systems, and the incidence of food-borne illness is rising. But with help from FAO, Dakar officials have begun an ambitious project to improve the street-food sector. Construction of a new market area is underway where street vendors will have access to fresh water, waste disposal and toilets. In addition, vendors are being taught basic food hygiene rules, for instance, to keep cooked food away from raw food to avoid contamination and to refrain from food preparation when ill with a cold or infection. They are also learning business management skills, since without a healthy business it's hard to devote the time and resources to improving hygiene.
In South Africa, FAO and the Government have created a manual, a video, and training booklets to help vendors, food inspectors and consumers make street food a safer and more profitable enterprise.
"The project has been so successful, we'd like to use it as a model elsewhere in Africa," says Enrico Casadei, nutrition officer in FAO's Food Quality and Standards Service. Plans are underway to organize a conference that will use South Africa's experiences as a starting point for similar programmes.