I am the first Foreign Service medical officer to be assigned to Karachi. There is a wonderful RN who has been here for years and has done an amazing job of getting the needed accomplished but, as a sole practitioner, she was limited in the projects she could attack. I am now in the office, as well as an administrative assistant, and we are on the prowl to stamp out common health problems.
One of the major issues at this post has been food-borne illness. Kitchen checks and food-handler classes failed to make a significant dent in the number of people with GI complaints. For the past six weeks, a small part of my day—each day—is looking at food safety issues. This is not new. Almost every Foreign Service medical officer has responsibility for food safety at his or her post, but the depth of responsibility differs vastly, depending on the post’s location and size.
I have five commercial-style kitchens to evaluate and approximately 30 food workers spread among them. Despite my previous experience, which I considered advanced, I’ve turned over a whole new leaf in food safety, pun intended! There is a mantra that Foreign Service people recite: Wash it, peel it, cook it or don’t eat it. And that is good advice, but not the whole picture. I bet most people have never thought of the many opportunities food has to make a person ill.
I have to consider where the food comes from and how it has been handled prior to purchase. If the meat is fresh, there is possible contamination, such as salmonella for chicken and eggs, E. coli for beef and vegetables or, more commonly, vegetables contaminated with the protozoa Giardia.
Once the food is purchased, our kitchens are expected to clean it with the intent to rid the food of harmful organisms. In this part of the world, this is usually done with salted water, but our standards do not accept that as sufficient, so cultural sensitivity is required when asking our cooks to do something different than they do in their own homes.
The food is now properly cleaned. Are we done? Not on your life, pun intended. Now it has to be stored at the proper temperature. That means assuring freezers register no more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit and refrigerators no more than 38 F. But what about a place where the electricity is unstable and power fluctuates between the grid and a generator, sometimes multiple times a day. This is murder to a motor and the fridge that was functioning properly yesterday may be at 60 degrees today. We require cooks to record the temperature of these units daily, but think of how difficult it is to understand the concept of proper cold storage when you don’t have cold storage in your home? I recently found a freezer where the worker had dutifully recorded the temperature of 27 degrees for three days running but didn’t understand the significance of this “danger zone” temperature and hadn’t notified Maintenance of the problem.
OK, so we have properly functioning storage and now the food is prepared into meals. Am I twiddling my thumbs at this point? No, I’m out there with my handy-dandy, infrared thermometer, truly one of the coolest inventions on earth, checking to be sure the salads are being served cold and the hot foods are hot. So now, sigh, my job is finally done!
Hmm, what about the flies? What about the hygiene of the dinnerware, glassware, tableware? What about the hands of the servers? Are any of the staff workers ill with a communicable disease? Is the lassi (a lovely local drink) really made with pasteurized yogurt, or did some raw tuberculosis-tainted yogurt sneak in?
I’m sure I have colleagues who would say they did not go into medicine to focus on food safety issues, and I never imagined this as part of my forte, either. We really take this for granted in the Western world. But I don’t live and work in the Western world, and I have to tell you, I am struttin’ my stuff right now. I haven’t had a bad belly come through my health unit door in about 10 days, and my staff and I are kings of the consulate! No pun intended!
But, dengue fever is on the rise, up 15 percent over last week in the city. That will be another story.