DUBAI // Food safety officials yesterday called for a centralised laboratory that could investigate cases of food contamination across the Emirates.
On day two of the sixth Annual Dubai International Food Safety Conference the officials also urged best practice guidelines for food safety inspections, and reiterated calls for a uniform food security law.
"There is no comprehensive directory or electronic system in place yet," said Ahmed Abdulrehman al Ali, the head of the food inspection section at Dubai Municipality. "This needs to change to take us into the future."
The country suffered from the lack of a system that could track and eliminate foodborne illnesses, Mr al Ali said.
"Government bodies such as the Ministry of Education, Agriculture, Water and Environment must combine efforts," added Dr Fatma al Attar, head of the Preventive Services Centre at the Dubai Health Authority (DHA). "Hospital labs are still not all equipped, and we truly need a national laboratory."
Dubai Municipality is working alongside the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the DHA on a project that could change the way food-poisoning cases are uncovered and investigated.
"We initially started working with the WHO and DHA on a committee 18 months ago," Mr al Ali said. "We have since agreed on and defined clear roles and responsibilities to put on track a model to better find food-poisoning cases."
After a full review, the committee will bring the proposal to the Ministry of Environment and Water for implementation across the Emirates. "This electronic system will define cases from hospitals, clinics and so on," Mr al Ali said.
A major obstacle to centralisation efforts was the fact that victims of food poisoning often did not report their illnesses, allowing for less testing, he said. "How many times do people inform authorities or hospitals? Most self-medicate, but foodborne illnesses can develop into long-term diseases such as cancer."
Mr al Ali said many countries invested heavily in controlling outbreaks, and the UAE must ensure a system for follow-ups, risk analysis and detailed studies on local and imported foods.
"Over the next five years, our goal is to mitigate cases by building upon a transparent database of scientific data," he said.
Citing statistics from the WHO, Dr al Attar said 1.9 million people died annually from foodborne and diarrhoeic illnesses.
There are at least 250 described foodborne illnesses that can spread through contaminated food, drinking water, swimming water and toddler to toddler at nurseries, she said.
"It's impossible to assess the local situation because there is no unified case definition, and most cases go unreported. However, we have seen a drop in cases the past five years," Dr al Attar said. "We need to also educate our schoolchildren, farmers, vendors and processors."
Proper investigation was key, said Dr Ian Williams, acting chief of the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Food is now distributed over larger distances," Dr Williams said. "A hazard can enter from anywhere from the farm to the fork, and we all depend on food safety standards of other countries."
The most common offences are non-compliance in hygiene and handling of equipment, according to Kevin Smith, director of retail food and co-operative programme co-ordination at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA found better results with certified food protection managers in food establishments - a scheme that Dubai Municipality has already implemented. Sharjah has also initiated a certified food safety training programme for restaurant workers.
"Traditional assumptions of knowledge alone do not produce results. It is training programmes that bring a change in behaviour," said Asia al Raeesi, the acting head of the food studies and surveys section at Dubai Municipality.
The Person In Charge (PIC) programme in Dubai was introduced last year, and requires that every food establishment has a municipality-certified individual who ensures that all practices and policies are followed.
By the end of this year, the programme will be mandatory.
Training started early this year, and 15 certifications have been presented here so far.