ABU DHABI // Food safety in Abu Dhabi restaurants is improving as the number of workers who have had training increased by more than 8 per cent in the past year, the food regulator says.
A programme that started in 2008 has reached almost all of the staff in Abu Dhabi's food outlets, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) said this week.
"All restaurants in Abu Dhabi are sending their food handlers for the training," said Mohammed Al Reyaysa, the authority's communications director. "But due to the fact that new people are being recruited, it's a continuous process."
In the past year, 25,582 workers underwent at least six hours of hygiene training and sat a 45-minute test, making it a total of 83,967 since the programme started.
Until 2008, 60 per cent of staff at food establishments were required to have been trained, but did not have to pass a final exam.
For the past four years, however, all staff have been required to take the training and pass the test, or the restaurant at which they worked would not have its licence renewed each year.
"There has not been any food establishment in Abu Dhabi that has not had its licence renewed in the past year," said Mr Al Reyaysa.
The training aims to improve the food handlers' practical skills in cooking, cleaning, chilling and avoiding cross-contamination through good personal hygiene.
Staff are also taught about preparation, processing, packaging, storage, transport, distribution, selling and serving food.
The authority hopes to cover all food handlers by next year. The pass rate has broken 70 per cent this year, compared with 62 per cent last year, and 37 per cent four years ago.
The authority attributes the success to its pictorial exams, introduced last year.
"Piloting of the new ADFCA pictorial exam has demonstrated its success," said Mr Al Reyaysa. "The training material is being updated by companies to ensure a smooth introduction of the new style exam across the emirate later this year."
Only 10,800 food handlers took part in the programme's first year. That number almost doubled to 20,900 the year after, but three in five failed the test.
"Abu Dhabi has definitely improved the safety of its food in the last year," said Sven Mostegl, a food-safety consultant. "They involve the staff a lot and they work a great deal to attain a good level."
But Mr Mostegl said getting regulations and messages across to businesses needed improvement.
"They should increase communication with companies, restaurants and labour camps," he said. "But compared to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi is much better off."
The authority still faces a major language barrier. Exams were originally given in Arabic, English, Hindi and Urdu. Malayalam, Bengali and Tamil were added last year.
"We already communicated with the training companies to add three new languages, including Farsi, Pashto and Chinese - Cantonese and Mandarin," said Mr Al Reyaysa.
"The language skills of food handlers are a crucial factor so an oral exam was also included for those who can't read and write."
Another challenge is the high staff turnover across the emirate.
"This means that new food handlers enter the industry regularly and they need to be [trained]," said Mr Al Reyaysa.
New food establishments are given a grace period of five months to complete staff training. Those who do not pass on their first attempt are allowed to resit the exam.
Staff who fail a second time are sent on a more rigorous food-safety course. Once they pass, workers will be given a five-year certificate.
"Abu Dhabi's standards are closely reaching those of Dubai's, which are almost as good as international standards," said Mr Mostegl. "It is definitely catching up, maybe slowly but surely."