South Africa’s cholera outbreak, with cases reported in five provinces, has claimed 26 lives. On World Food Safety Day, a food safety expert says ensuring proper food safety and hygiene protocols is the most effective way to prevent the further spread of cholera and other foodborne diseases.

According to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, cholera is spread through ‘water contaminated with human faeces, either directly (through drinking contaminated water) or indirectly (through eating contaminated food).

The World Health Organisation says on average 1.6 million people globally people fall sick due to unsafe food daily. 340 children under 5 years of age die due to preventable foodborne diseases every day. There are 200 diseases caused by unsafe food, ranging from diarrhoea to cancer.

Health-e News spoke to Professor Lise Korsten about the importance of food handling to prevent foodborne diseases such as cholera, listeriosis, salmonella, typhoid and campylobacter. 

Korsten, who is a co-director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, explains why food safety is so vital.

How should people living in areas with cholera cases ensure food safety?

They must ensure that fresh produce irrigated with river or dam water that might be contaminated should be boiled or cooked thoroughly. That is easily said for onions, tomatoes or spinach but lettuce and others are a problem.

So avoid eating raw vegetables. If you are not sure about the quality of the water source rather avoid eating the fresh produce or if it can be cooked rather do so.

Can food safety practices prevent foodborne diseases like cholera?

Food safety starts with clean potable (drinking) water used during irrigation to washing of vegetables and washing of plates and other utensils. Food is just a carrier or vehicle for the organism to find its way into your body.

Very importantly people must get potable water, as boiling water first is a challenge given load shedding, so we can consider water filtering with tablets at stores but this also can be expensive for someone who barely has money for food.

What are the risks of eating food deemed ‘unsafe’?

Unsafe food can cause death or severe or mild symptoms depending on the pathogen that is at the time associated with the food item. A small bout of diarrhoea can be from one of a few organisms that could be present in our food at low dosages and then cause an illness that we can recover from after a day or two.

So hygiene remains a critical factor in all food-producing, handling preparing and serving environments. We must wash our hands at least five times a day, as the World Health Organisation states. We need to retain our Covid-19 hand hygiene approach.

Can eating contaminated food cause cholera?

There have been reports of vegetable transmission. But we need to focus on only using potable water. We need to be mindful of the type of food we buy and be more sensible about how much we buy at times

How safe is the food South Africans access?

Our food is safe otherwise we would all walk around being sick from our food all the time. We all know what it feels like to get food poisoning, it is horrible. People usually have it once and then they are more mindful about eating safe food.

How do I know if the food is safe to eat?

Through indigenous knowledge, we learnt that you can smell instinctively or feel that slimy touch of old food. But a lot of food items might not have the classical signals like the smell, look or feel and that is the dangerous ones like polony and salmonella, so we need some assurance that our food will be produced safely, transported safely and retailed safely.

We trust the food system but we do not trust our electricity supplier because we experience load shedding all the time, so we have to put more effort into keeping our food cold or hot or cooking it properly before the lights go out. The other thing people must not open fridges too much during load shedding and they must be smart about buying just enough food, cooking it properly and making just enough to consume at the time. Avoid leftovers. –Health-e News.


  • Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

    Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.