Over Fried Foods in Cuba: Slow Death or No Big Deal?

Irina Echarry

Tasty fritters. Illustration by Carlos
Tasty fritters. Illustration by Carlos

HAVANA TIMES — Dawn breaks. The odor of refried oil seeps into my apartment, Mayra is refrying the croquettes that were left over from yesterday. Children line up around her cart with fried goodies, bread with croquettes and fried “crabs” filled with guava, to satisfy their morning cravings, before they go to school. Adults also stop in order to stifle their hunger, to make up for the lack of a glass of milk at home.

Mayra is one of those struggling women, who works from the moment the sun comes up, at home and on the street, in order to make sure her family is somewhat comfortable. In order to sell what she makes in her blue cart and feed her children she buys cooking oil that has already been used at a restaurant or cafe, as it is cheaper. This is why there’s such a disgusting smell in the mornings, which takes over the entire block.

And the smell isn’t the worst thing. No inspector of any kind monitors how she makes the food that she then sells in her blue cart. It’s not about an inspector turning up and checking the hygiene of the place where she cooks; she keeps that spotless. Nor is it about somebody asking for a receipt of the ingredients she uses to make these products and who conform with a smile, a joke or an excuse.

It’s about keeping tabs on the health of consumers.

Out of all the ministries we have here in Cuba, if we were to make a list of the worst to the best, the first one would be that of Public Health.

Take note that I’ve placed it above the Ministry of Transport, which is famously renowned for being a wreck -and it is-, and the Ministry of Agriculture, which stands out for its shortcomings; or the Ministry of Education, which has slowly become poorer and poorer to the point of even entering a crisis in recent years.

Public Health tops this list of the worst ministries because supposedly, preventing diseases is among its duties; and they only do this halfheartedly. From what I understand, it’s administration isn’t focused properly. It spends millions of pesos on fumigating campaigns and paying vector control inspectors while dengue continues to do as it pleases; too much hype for campaigns against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito and the diseases it causes, even though later the Annual Health Report doesn’t even mention them. It spends a lot of money on advertising self-help phone lines against drugs, on rehab clinics, treatments for diseases caused by tobacco and alcohol consumption, however these harmful drugs continue to be produced and sold throughout the country.

Mayra, just like any one of us, must have a family member or neighbor who has received treatment at the cancer specialist hospital, where millions of dollars are spent on cutting-edge technology and cytotoxic IV drips. However, she is contributing to the proliferation of cancer and other diseases, and she doesn’t even know it. When somebody tells her, she doesn’t believe them: “You’re not going to know more than those at Public Health,” she says.

Her response is understandable, but she’s wrong. Public Health is on top of all the information regarding scientific breakthroughs and, furthermore, has excellent researchers working for them.  However, it doesn’t always take a stance when it should. For example, it has kept quiet about the discoveries that have had an impact in the world of health, which target certain foods and their influence on increasing certain diseases.

A year ago, the World Health Organization, dealing with a report from its International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans. We all know that they serve this as the main meal at school and in many of our homes. Sausages or “hot dogs”, luncheon meat, etc. are the most accessible products we Cubans have, and therefore, they form an important part of our diets.  It’s not that I want to alarm you, but people should be duly informed. It’s true that here in Cuba we have very few options as food products are scarce and expensive; however, I still haven’t seen, heard or read heard any warnings from the Ministry of Public Health with regard to this issue.

Along with the opening up of independent establishments, the chances of getting sick have shot through the roof, as these join the State in their negligence. I’m not demonizing sellers; the thing is though that the State, who likes to control us so much, is relaxed when it comes to our most vulnerable spots. It’s imperative that the population knows the risks that they face so they can make their own decisions.

Subjected to extremely high temperatures, refined oils produce free radicals which cause cellular damage, actively participating in the aging process of our cells, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disorders and problems with our immune systems. Maybe Mayra, after finding out about all of this, will still continue to buy used cooking oils to make her fried goods, because it gives her a larger profit; and the people who regularly eat her fried foods, might choose to ignore these dangers and continue to eat them.

If the State and its institutions (which are funded by all of us) really looked out for our health, they should inform us and establish measures to regulate this practice. Therefore, an informed population could defend itself and exercise some kind of influence on those who break the law (including state-run establishments), however, the defenselessness we suffer is a reality, a vicious cycle which is hard to break.

I’m sure that there are studies and investigations about this topic here in Cuba which only scientists have access to. This is always the case, no matter what the sector. However, the thing is that this ministry should have an ethical backbone, which it doesn’t, leaving the population totally ignorant and helpless.

One thought on “Over Fried Foods in Cuba: Slow Death or No Big Deal?

  • Surely it is the people who are selling off the used oil to street vendors that should be investigated, o and lower the price of the oil so that the street vendors can afford virgin oil and not have to purchase used oil! Come on Mr Castro time for you to help oil the wheels of industry, in the shape of these so hard working street vendors!

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