Recently, we heard a particularly horrifying case of food poisoning in Karachi. A man was hospitalised for three weeks with high fever that wouldn’t subside.
Doctors couldn’t figure out what the cause was and none of the medicines seemed to be working. When they took his history, it was revealed the man had eaten something contaminated with rat urine and he was diagnosed with leptospirosis. Thankfully, he was discharged eventually.
Leptospirosis is an illness caused by the bacteria leptospira which is often found in rat urine or feces. It can affect both humans and animals. Infected rodents spread the disease through their droppings or bites. It can enter the body through cuts and abrasions in the skin or through mucous membranes: eyes, nose and mouth.
In severe cases it can also lead to liver and kidney damage.
Cases usually peak during rainy season. Outdoor and agricultural workers are at risk at an increased risk
The method of spread is similar to leptospirosis with the disease-causing microbe entering the body through cuts and abrasions in the skin or through the eyes, nose, mouth, breathing in dust contaminated with rodent urine or feces, or through direct contact with live or dead rodents.
SAMAA Digital spoke to some Karachi food inspectors about food contaminants and what they usually found during their food raids.
A food safety officer from the Sindh Food Authority told us daily inspections happen on a regular basis. However, contaminants are usually found during surprise raids, especially after someone tips them off.
He said that the conditions at most shops and their processing plants were quite unhygienic. Only a few big names in the mithai industry, for example, follow all the SOPs given by the SFA. Other contaminants found at mithai shops were ammonia and pesticides, including rat poison.
Ammonia is used for cleaning and processing but mismanagement can lead to dangerous leaks which result in airway irritation, allergies, chemical burns and eventually death.
Pesticides used to kill rodents can also contaminate food and cause death by poisoning almost immediately. “This is why we recommend fumigation be carried out only by certified professionals,” said the food safety officer.
A retired food inspector, who used to work for the KMC, told SAMAA Digital that hygiene conditions were particularly poor at mithai shops and plants in Korangi, Jacob Lines and New Karachi.
They had been served notices and sealed many times in the past. “Most adulteration is found in atta (flour), haldi (turmeric), milk and chai patti (tea leaves),” he said.
The KMC food department had raided many edible oil refining factories in his time. They were found to be producing low quality oil because they didn’t want to spend money on the boiling process.
“Poor quality oil has a semi-solid texture, it feels like a halwa,” he explained. “Good quality oil, on the other hand, is fully liquid.”
A doctor who was involved in the treatment of the man who fell seriously ill with leptospira also warned against drinking from soft drink cans directly.
“Rats can run across the can’s surface,” he said. Their droppings or urine can leave traces as well. Never place your mouth directly on the can and try to use a straw, he recommended.