ABU DHABI // Only 28 out of 135 food shops in the Musaffah industrial area - where thousands of labourers eat every day - met hygiene standards during a month-long inspection drive. The Abu Dhabi Food Authority officers handed out 74 warnings and 29 fines. The inspectors confiscated and destroyed 346kg of food that was declared unfit for consumption.
The campaign followed complaints about the safety of Musaffah's food establishments. Officials fear that, with so many workers eating from so few sources, there is a danger of mass food poisoning should something go wrong in the preparation of the food. Last August, 11 labourers ended up in hospital with food poisoning after overstretched caterers skimped on hygiene. The authority plans to continue its inspections until Musaffah's food outlets meet hygiene standards.
Abdul Hakeem al Jabri, the director of field operations, who headed an inspection unit yesterday, said: "We wanted to gain a clear understanding of the general patterns of food safety violations across the outlets so we come up with appropriate measures to fix them. "We also try to spread awareness among the workers at the outlets about hygienic norms that they have to adhere to, as well as the health specifications like levels of heat and cold, storing and packing."
A typical eating place is Adnan Adel's Food Zone Restaurant. Up to 700 workers eat at his restaurant on weekdays. At weekends, he serves as many as 1,000 customers. As the inspectors disclosed their results, Mr Adel said: "What do you expect from a labour camp? You cannot expect it to be 100 per cent hygienic." The labourers have few options. Some receive the catered meals as part of their pay package, but others eat at the cheapest restaurants they can find, or in unlicensed kitchens.
They often eat in cramped rooms where the staff wear headcovers, but flies patrol the hallways and empty cigarette packets are discarded in corners. Many more eat in kitchens that serve up to 10,000 meals a day. "You can't trust [the restaurants] as much as you trust the work of your own hands. It's a question of confidence," said Ayman Ahmed, 30, a security guard in a labour camp. Mr Ahmed was having lunch with three co-workers, eating food cooked in an unlicensed kitchen, over which the authority has little influence.
Because the kitchen is unlicensed, it is treated as a regular home. The security guards know they are taking a chance. "In terms of cleanliness, I can't guarantee it. The restaurants make food for large numbers," said Islam Saleh, 25, another guard. Mr Saleh said he had witnessed poor hygiene in restaurants, such as bloodied chickens and undercooked rice. Restaurants often used oil several times to save money, the workers said.
Abilash Kolakkle, 30, a taxi driver from India, said restaurants were frequently smelly and paid less attention to hygiene the more customers they had. "When they start, you get very nice food. But when they have many customers, they are very bad," he said. The situation is slowly improving as the Government focuses on the labour camps and pushes to have 60 per cent of food industry personnel trained in hygiene by the end of the year.
But for the restaurants, high rent and utility costs are placing pressure on food prices in an area where customers can earn as little as Dh500 (US$130) a month. "The rent is high, the gas is high, there are so many things," said Mr Adel, who pays Dh105,000 a year in rent for his small restaurant. "Restaurant people think if they buy cheap quality, they can prepare cheap and they can have some profit."
A centralised system providing gas to power the kitchens cost Dh20,000 to install and Dh10,000 per month to operate, said Mr Adel. Gas cylinders are one-tenth the cost. "What do you expect from a labour camp?" Mr Adel repeated. "You cannot keep your price high. If you want to maintain business you have to keep your profit margin very low." Although hygiene training could improve standards, it is too infrequent, and many restaurant staff fail courses because the only available examination languages are English, Arabic and Urdu.
Last month, the authority said more than 60 per cent of restaurant staff who took hygiene courses failed their exams. The main reason was poor language skills. email@example.com