Concerns raised over university food safety

Several food poisoning incidents suffered by students living in some North African university housing have raised questions about standards and food safety in student accommodation and university residences in the region.

Among the food safety incidents at some student university dormitories making the news more recently is the food poisoning suffered by Egyptian students at both the Assiut university branch of Al-Azhar University as well as Tanta University, which resulted from tainted food including insects and worms in meals, sand in breads and rotten meat, according to a press report earlier this month.

Omar Abdel-hamid Al-shafee, a recent graduate from the faculty of computers and information at Misr Higher Institute for Commerce and Computers, told University World News that “Egyptian universities are not alone in having food safety problems at student housing”.

Tunisian university students have faced similar problems in the past where worms were found in cooked soup and in frozen meat even after it was cooked.

A Tunisian press report from 2017 highlighted the issue.

As far back as October 2015 a press report said dissatisfaction with university meals formed the majority of complaints from students in Algeria, while Morocco was not exempt from such incidents either.

Moroccan university students protested after the death of a student as a result of food poisoning after eating at a university restaurant.

Academic impact

“Unhealthy food may have serious consequences on the health of students physically and emotionally,” Egyptian higher education expert Manar Sabry, and Middle East and North Africa region editor for the Comparative and International Education Society newsletter told University World News.

She said food-insecure students would take longer to graduate or would drop out of school, resulting in money lost to the education fiscus.

“It is well documented that malnutrition negatively affects students’ learning and may cause depression and other health issues,” Sabry said.

Sabry’s views are in line with a 2010 study which stated that “nutrition services within the university city are the most important but the most at risk because it provided our students with their needs of energy needed to complete their daily activities.”

Possible solutions

“The food safety issue can be solved by a firm system of inspection – with regular sample testing of the food provided to students, visits by the ministry of health to the production site, and seeking continuous feedback from the students,” Sabry said.

“It is important to have some sort of complaint system or hotline where students can make authorities immediately aware of any changes in the quality or the quantity of meals,” Sabry said. “But students must feel safe that their complaint is anonymous.”

Echoing Sabry’s views, Noha Mohamed Abdel-Fatah, a female student at the faculty of science at Mansoura University in Egypt, told University World News: “In order to give a voice to all members of the academic community, an online food services forum should be set up to allow students and faculty staff to discuss food service concerns, issues and improvement ideas, to provide guidance and recommendations to university food services”.

Abdel-Fatah said healthy cooking classes could be organised to advocate healthy eating habits.

To fill the gap in research on the food safety among students in Arab tertiary institutions, Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, science and technology expert at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, told University World News: “There should be coordinated research at a national and regional level on food safety among university students living in dormitory housing through examining food safety attitudes, behaviour, and knowledge in order to design food safety education programmes on campus for reducing food-borne illness among students”.

“A virtual Arab universities’ food safety hub should be established to serve as a central resource on food safety education and related information, including procedures and services for the university community which could provide information on food quality as well as links to presentations, publications and websites related to the production, harvest and processing of foods,” Abd-El-Aal said.