Time to eat meat: how safe is it?

Ugandans love beef too much. It is always a must on the menu. This has seen growth in butcheries, which are now located next to each other. However, there was shock when NTV reported about rotting meat which was found in two of the country’s leading supermarkets.

Sources say, one of the supermarkets was preserving their meat with liquid that was in a bottle without a label. The liquid is believed to be sodium benzoate, a chemical formula NaC₇H₅O₂, usually used as food preservative.

There are unconfined reports that some butcheries use chemicals used to treat dead bodies to preserve meat for the next day. Medical experts say these two chemicals have adverse effects on people.

Clearly, these developments put the beef industry at risk. If you watched that NTV clip which played in August 2014 after one of the leading supermarkets, showing the state of the meat which KCCA inspectors found internal butcheries of the supermarkets, you would have thought about all instances you had bought meat from that particular supermarket. The big black flies were all over the meat oozing around, the dirty water, you could watch it on TV and almost feel the awful smell. It was terrible. The state of the meat and chicken made some people to start thinking twice over buying food sold in the supermarkets. It appears as if meat or chicken that is spoilt or about to get spoilt, is instead cooked and put up for sale. We just pray that such is not the case, as some supermarkets have stringent quality control measures and are conscious about the health of their customers.

The worst part is what these developments may lead to. Without official records of Uganda’s beef exports, if Ugandans stopped taking beef, the industry could collapse.

Below, we take a look at the issues that exposed consumers and the likely effect on the growth of the sector.

Quality of inspection and inspectors

Ugandans familiar with the sector say the quality of meat inspection is wanting. One expert this magazine spoke to said “what the meat inspectors are doing is just to find the problem and let it be.” The inspectors do spot checking and write reports. By the time the reports get to appropriate authorities, the meat has already been consumed.

That is that all.

Sources say high corruption, lack of merit in appointment to the jobs, and generally poor reading culture, most of the concerned authorities rarely read the field reports they receive and there is evidence to that.

“Between August 2012 and June 2013, in one abattoir, in Uganda, the inspectors found four cases of a zoonosis condition and nothing was done despite reports being sent to concerned authorities. If there was somebody reading these reports, such situation would be of concern and perhaps a state of emergency would have been declared.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans and vice-versa is classified as a zoonosis as per the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) publication, Zoonoses And Communicable Diseases Common To Man And Animals.

“When I was training to be a meat inspector, it took me three years. However, currently people aspiring to become meat inspectors train for just two to three weeks and become qualified meat inspectors and get jobs. What type of inspectors are these?” wondered the expert who preferred to remain anonymous.

The cost of meat is on the rise and it is a cash cow for most supermarkets and butcheries. A kilo of meat goes for Ugx 7,000 to Ugx 15,000 depending on the location. In that instance, they cannot afford to throw away bad meat in case they had overstocked. Usually, in absence of continuous inspection of the facilities and surprise visits, such dealers fry or cook the meat and offer it to customers in another form. The unlucky ones buy it and get sick later. It is unfortunate but possible in our capitalist Kampala.

Filthy storage

Have you ever asked your butcher what happens to meat that he does not sell that day? Many, if not all, butcheries have no freezers or cold rooms to store their meat in the recommended conditions. Unconfined reports reveal some butcheries are using formaldehyde (a chemical used to treat dead bodies) to preserve their meat.

As recently observed by KCCA action, meat in some supermarkets is preserved using unknown chemicals. This is how dangerous Ugandan meat lovers are exposed. When you go to these small butcheries, it is worse, the dust, car fumes, the flies and general working environment from which they operate. Some of these folks know nothing about safety and health. You will find the attendant chewing some mchomo and swigging a cloth to turn the unwavering dark-coloured flies away. It is tough. The only consolation is that “I will first cook it thoroughly.” That is good. However, some people love meat so much that they want to taste it raw and then half way when they are smoking it, and when it is finally ready. In the process, they contract diseases that are not anywhere in the nomenclature. It is tight!

Meat transportation

The way human beings enjoy meat is the same way bacteria and microorganisms enjoy it.

Meat is very nutritious, high in protein and delicate. You have seen people transporting it in wooden boxes. These wonderful boxes have been classified as incubators — inside them is a metallic layer. Given their busy schedules and lack of serious supervision, these transporters sometimes forget to clean these boxes. Given our favourable tropical climate, the microorganisms find such boxes safe haven to settle and recreate.

Meat experts say there are some bacteria which don’t cause infections themselves but form toxins that when consumed may cause food poisoning. And when these toxins get into our bodies, they may harm us over time. The quality of meat transportation leaves a lot to be desired. It is common to see people sitting on top of the meat on the floor of cars during transportation. All these pose health threats.

Safety of our butcher men is wanting

Meat quality is about personal safety, cleanliness and so many other things while meat goes through well-streamlined process and passed in abattoirs, what goes on after, you wouldn’t like to know.

Human beings if not medically checked carry diseases and bacteria which they can pass on to the meat they are selling.

Uganda’s beef rules, regulations and policies call on all butcher men to undergo and pass medical tests, and they should display their licence.

So, how many of our butcher men have been tested? You have seen some with long dirty nails, long hair and some with dirty white aprons. The health of some of the men is wanting.

How safe are cutting instruments?

According to standards, these cutting instruments including pangas must be dipped in special containers with very hot water at boiling temperatures every two hours. One wonders how many of them follow such health requirements. Next time you visit your favourite butcher, ask to see the location of the hot water container. You will be surprised what you will find. Even better, try to visit the nearby convenient rooms (toilets), you will be lucky not to abandon the meat there.

Where is government?

According to experts, Uganda’s meat industry has one of the best policies in the world but as usual implementation is the problem. There is whole Chapter in the health laws of Uganda is about meat regulation, meat hygiene, disease control, etc. Why is the industry so disorganized?

Rwanda is said to have a well-structured meat market that allows for traceability – it is possible to locate where a particular animal came from just in case of issues for example disease discovered from one animal at the slaughter house. They use a system that is not very formal. They require a local council leader or member to sign forms right from village where the animal is coming from – all details about the animal are given.

In Uganda it is practically impossible to do that. It is so unfortunate to note that one of the key people at the forefront of implementing such a system in Rwanda was trained and used to work here in Uganda.

Hope is not lost

Reliable sources tell SBR that the issue of rotting meat in supermarkets has attracted senior government intervention and officials are not ready to see this go just like that. Other players have also woken up. One leading supermarket is said to be looking for a competent provider to manage its meat section.

Top cuts, one of the licensed butcheries, is said to be organized and manages butcheries in and around town. Their butcher men are medically tested and work in well-organized environments.

Private partners including SNV, ILRI, Uganda Halal Bureau and recently European Union have come up with several initiatives to promote the sector. Already the EU has allocated US$20m to boost the sector. We hope this kind of intervention will bring the safety and quality expected of such a critical sector.

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