How UNBS is testing relief food during COVID-19

By Joselyn Biira Mwine

Efforts to contain the corona virus in Uganda have left many business owners and workers without a meal to eat as a result of lost income and wages due to the temporary closing of business operations. This prompted the Government of Uganda through the Office of the Prime Minister to begin distribution of relief food for the vulnerable population whose businesses and work places were closed during the lock down. Government has also called upon organizations and individuals who would like to donate food items to the vulnerable population to channel it through the Office of the Prime Minister.

As a result, companies and individuals have overwhelmingly donated food relief items to this cause. However, it is imperative that all the food supplied to the public is safe for human consumption. If not properly managed, unsafe food containing harmful substances such as chemical contaminants and micro-organisms such as bacteria, can cause food poisoning and other diseases – ranging from diarrhea to cancers.

Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) a body charged with the responsibility to protect the health and safety of consumers through testing of this relief food has built and maintained adequate food testing laboratories to respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain, including during emergencies. Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick.

UNBS uses Standards to address this challenge.  Standards give guidance and benchmarks for best practices in food production methods and testing, to promote safety, quality and efficiency across the entire food industry. These standards address issues relevant to consumers such as food safety, nutritional labeling, hygiene, food additives and more. They give consumers the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the food they consume meets high standards for safety and quality and contains what it says on the label.

Food can become contaminated at any point along the value chain especially during production, processing and distribution, and the primary responsibility for preventing contamination lies with food producers. Yet a large proportion of food borne disease incidents are caused by foods improperly handled in food service establishments, markets or prepared at home. Not all food handlers and consumers understand the roles they must play, such as adopting basic hygienic practices when buying, selling and preparing food to protect their health and that of the wider community. If the ongoing pandemic is anything to go by, it is important the all food handlers across the supply chain manufacture, store and handle food with the utmost care and safety precautions.

UNBS works to facilitate prevention, detection and response to public health threats associated with unsafe food. Ensuring consumer trust in their authorities, and confidence in the safe food supply, is an outcome that UNBS works to achieve. To do this, UNBS is undertaking the testing of relief food intended for supply during the countrywide lock down. UNBS testing laboratories are a center of excellence accredited by the impartial and independent international accreditation body – South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) based on the international standards ISO 17025:2017.

The Microbiology laboratory routinely undertakes analysis for microorganisms of public health significance. The laboratory tests a range of both fresh and processed foods and beverages.  These include water, fruit juices, fish, milk and milk products, pickles, meat and meat products, cereals products, canned foods and dried foods. The Chemistry laboratory checks for chemical contaminants, nutritional content and other physical/chemical properties of foods.

Laboratory testing is an important process, which relies on scientific analysis to identify problems with food products. It provides analytical data on the quality of a product or production process to support quality control in the HACCP system. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) has been developed with the aim of systematically identifying the ingredients or processes that may cause problems (hazard analysis), assign locations (critical control points) within the manufacturing process where the properties of the food must be measured to ensure that safety and quality are maintained, and to specify the appropriate action to take if a problem is identified.

UNBS is currently testing all the relief food (maize meal and beans) before they are supplied to the vulnerable people.  The testing process for these relief foods begins with taking samples from the food consignments, in this case, maize flour and beans. Each sample is given a unique sample identification number, initial and date of collection. The samples are then subjected to testing using the standards US EAS 44:2019, Milled maize (corn) products — Specification for maize flour, and US EAS 46:2017, Dry beans — Specification for dry beans.

The samples are analysed by technical experts for different safety and quality parameters as stipulated in the standard.   The maize flour is tested for contaminants such as aflatoxin, moisture content to ensure that there is no quick deterioration and micro-organisms such as bacteria among others. Beans are tested for extraneous matter, filth, insect infestation and rotten seeds among others. Once testing is done, a test report is prepared with the findings from the sample(s). This draws the conclusion of whether the food is safe for human consumption or not. In the event that the food fails the laboratory tests, it is not allowed for distribution and is held in storage until it can be safely destroyed to prevent illegal distribution.

It is therefore important that food manufacturers and processors do everything they can to ensure that these harmful substances are not present, or that they are effectively eliminated before the food is consumed. This can be achieved by following good manufacturing practices specified in the Standards for specific food products and by having analytical techniques that are capable of detecting the harmful substances.

The food industry is highly competitive and food manufacturers are continually trying to increase their market-share and profits. To do this they must ensure that their products are of higher quality, less expensive, and more desirable than their competitors, whilst ensuring that they are safe and nutritious. In a food factory one starts with a number of different raw materials, processes them using the appropriate relevant technologies, packages them and then stores them ready for distribution. The food is then transported to a warehouse or retailer where it is sold for consumption.

Manufacturers and producers must take care to produce a final product that consistently has the same overall properties, i.e. appearance, texture, flavor and shelf life. When consumers receive these particular food products they expect its properties to be the same (or very similar) to previous times, and not to vary from purchase-to-purchase.

Manufacturers should understand the role that different food ingredients and processing operations play in determining the final properties of foods, so that they can rationally control the manufacturing process to produce a final product with consistent properties. Using standards is helpful in monitoring the production process through consistent application.

Standards such as the US 28 EAS 39:2002 Code of practice for hygiene in the food and drink manufacturing industry, which specifies the minimum requirements for factories and employees engaged in the manufacture, processing, packaging, storage, handling, treatment and delivery of foods intended for human consumption is essential in quality control.

Standards are designed to maintain the general quality and safety of the food supply, to ensure the food industry provides consumers with foods that are wholesome and safe, to inform consumers about the nutritional composition of foods so that they can make knowledgeable choices about their diet, to enable fair competition amongst food companies, and to eliminate economic fraud.

The writer is the Public Relations Officer at Uganda National Bureau of Standards