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Eating out tonight?

Published:Wednesday | March 21, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Dennie Quill, Columnist

When I first heard about contaminated paddy rice, I could have sworn it was coming from another Third World country. But no, the 1,500 tonnes of rice with rat and frog carcasses came from the United States.

The tainted paddy rice was imported for processing locally, and one wonders if the rice had escaped the detection of the Food Storage and Prevention of Infestation Division whether it would have been processed and put on the market.

This agency of government should be well staffed and given all the necessary resources because it has a very critical role to play in the nation's food security by protecting consumers. Harmful parasites, bacteria and viruses affect many of the foods we import.

Repeatedly, I have used this space to discuss the dangers of various food-borne illnesses and emerging infectious diseases that have become prevalent in recent times, while urging vigilance to ensure that the food that reaches our tables is safe. For example, how many people are aware that apples, the shiny imported ones, top the list of foods contaminated with pesticides?

A public-health advocacy group also found high levels of pesticides in celery, bell peppers, strawberries and carrots. Apparently, pesticides and fungicides are added to vegetables and fruits to extend their shelf life. The amounts of pesticide and fungicide may be minuscule, but who knows what the long-term effects may be?

Flirting with danger

There are many dangerous elements that can be absorbed into crops from the soil in which they grow. For example, where there is radiation, rice becomes susceptible to being tainted by the radioisotope caesium. We well remember the international row a few years back surrounding genetically engineered rice from America reaching markets in Europe. Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog, demanded that the products be removed from grocery stores and that consumers be protected.

Weevil, termites and worms are contaminants that have often been found in rice. Many a mother, in her quest to feed her family, is known to wash rice multiple times to rid it of weevil. Throwing away perfectly good rice would be out of the question.

It is similar to some people's attitude to rats. If a rat has bitten food, it is not unusual to see people cut away the part that has been bitten and proceed to eat the item. Rats are disease vectors and play a huge role in transmitting all kinds of disease. The weevil, far from being harmless, can cause food poisoning, as well as E. coli infection. The message is clear: We cannot be too cautious when handling food.

Strong action needed

Local authorities confirmed that another large consignment of rice which was imported last year was also deemed unfit for human consumption. Is this the same source of the latest shipment? Frankly, a company that ships contaminated rice should be banned from the list of approved importers until and unless it can guarantee the purity of its products.

Rice is a staple of many Jamaicans. The product is hailed for its 'stretching' quality, because a pound of rice can feed many mouths. Mexico is the largest importer of US rice, but that rice will not be accepted without certification. Do we have a similar requirement in Jamaica for rice imports?

And speaking of foods, let's turn the spotlight on restaurants and other eateries. How can members of the public be sure that precautionary measures are being taken in the stockroom and kitchen to maintain high standards of cleanliness? Indeed, there is a strong correlation between cleanliness and food-borne diseases.

With the growing array of culinary options in Kingston and Montego Bay, the public should demand a cleanliness list from the relevant public-health authorities to help patrons decide whether dining out is a great option.

Dennie Quill is a veteran media practitioner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and denniequill@hotmail.com.