By Dr Gerard Prinsen
Determining how long meat can remain safely on sale is not a black and white issue for the meat-sellers of northern Tanzania. My research for Livestock, Livelihoods and Health’s meat safety project, shows how differences in ideas and understanding around technology, culture and trust all play a part in determining how long people consider meat can be sold for human consumption – and when (as well as how) meat should be disposed of in some other way.
Analysis of 64 interviews carried out with butchers and owners of eateries in urban and rural areas of the Arusha region reveals a strong understanding among those selling both cooked and raw meat that at some point in time meat does indeed become unsuitable for human consumption. However, there is an uncertain period after the first day meat sellers taken possession of meat to be sold (‘Day One’), and before the third day they have it (‘Day Three’), when there are differences in opinion on the ‘saleability’ of the meat.
Day One is clear cut, with virtually all interviewees saying they operate on the principle that meat is best sold then. Vendors tend to start their working day with the meat they expect to sell that same day.
Some interviewees even indicated that they prefer to shut up shop early if they sell out rather than risk holding unsold meat at the end of the day, with a handful of eateries insisting they could not answer the question, ‘What do you do with unsafe meat?’ because such a situation never arose: they simply never had meat left over at the end of the day.
While some interviewees expressed concern about food safety and associated reputational risks if meat was sold beyond Day One, most simply stated that consumers would not want to buy meat that was more than a day old. Hence, preparing more than this does not make business sense.
As one eatery owner said: “We prepare small amounts to be sold for a day only. We don’t prepare more soup than demanded. It would be a loss for us.”
This is not to say that butchers and eateries never have meat left over at the end of Day One; in fact, a majority of interviewees indicated they have to deal with ‘left-overs’ on a regular basis. What happens to this meat on Day Two though, according to our interviewees, varies widely.
While some use a freezer for overnight storage before the meat is placed on sale again the next day, others are sceptical about the benefits of freezer use. “[The meat] loses weight and taste,” said one interviewee. For those who do place it on sale, there is agreement that it sells at the same price as Day One.
Near unanimity on what to do with unsold meat returns on Day Three, with the vast majority of interviewees saying they would not sell meat on or beyond this. It is not though always clear that this is for meat safety reasons. One interviewee said they believe the meat is still fit for human consumption, it is just that its smell is too unpleasant at this stage.
A few interviewees said that some people actually prefer to buy older meat. One said: “Some tribes – from Iringa – consider such meat is best one when reconstituted through boiling, and fried it tastes delicious when taken with cassava ugali.”
Another pointed out that some customers actually prefer “yesterday’s meat”, believing it “bigger by volume than the fresh meat”.
Virtually all interviewees said they dispose of meat deemed unfit for human consumption in one of two ways: they either pass it on as feed for animals, often dogs (82% of urban butchers and 65% of urban eateries said they do this; 53% of rural butchers and 47% of rural eateries), or they destroy the meat and bury it.
This difference in how to dispose of old meat itself reflects divergent views on meat safety. Several of those who bury their meat, often splashing it with kerosene first, said they do so to prevent animals eating it. One said: “You know, dogs are like people so why would you give them unsafe food? I believe on Judgement Day dogs will talk.” Another: “If a dog eats [old] meat, it will shed all its coat.”
While yet others believe that old meat can be eaten by dogs, albeit sometimes having been cooked first (“We advise [people] to boil the meat before feeding it to the dogs,” said one), they also said they take measures to ensure it does not end up being eaten by people. This is mostly based upon a system of trust.
“We know some poor and unreliable people who pretend to buy the meat for feeding dogs but they eat it themselves,” said one. “We don’t give [it to] them.”
Another said: “We understand that if this meat gets into the hands of untruthful boys … [it] will be a disaster… [we] make sure that it is not going to land in the wrong hands.”
Informing policy and practice
This is just a small taster of the complex map of views and beliefs surrounding food safety – and this the first in a series of blogs shedding some light on these from our research. These insights are important. The Hazards Associated with Zoonotic enteric pathogens in Emerging Livestock meat pathways (HAZEL) project is conducting these interviews on meat-selling practices and meat safety views and beliefs with the aim of identifying areas where food safety policy and practice can be improved. Doing the latter without understand the former is not possible.
Old or spoiled meat can cause serious illness in people. Disease-causing bacteria that live in animals can be passed on to people who handle or eat the meat of these animals. These zoonoses include non-typhoidal Salmonella and Campylobacter, which can cause diarrhoea and blood-stream infection (sepsis). In sub-Saharan Africa an estimated 100,000 people a year die of Salmonella infection alone – and Tanzania is known to be a hotspot for these pathogens.
So while the beliefs and practices surrounding meat safety may not be black and white issues, they can be life and death ones.