ABU DHABI // Food violations in the capital fell by more than a third in November as restaurants and meat counters faced mounting scrutiny by consumers and authorities. The statistics were released as a draft regulation that would criminalise food-safety violations including the option of imprisoning owners of eateries that fail numerous inspections passed a major hurdle before its possible introduction next month.
In its latest monthly report on inspections, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), the agency responsible for food safety in the emirate, said it issued 856 warnings to retail and wholesale food establishments, down from 1,295 in October a 33 per cent fall for roughly the same number of inspections. The decrease was even more pronounced at meat counters; warnings fell by almost half from October.
Mohammed al Reyaysa, a spokesman for the ADFCA, said increased vigilance by consumers had spurred restaurant management to improve safety standards. Consumers often tip off the authority about unhygienic practices, he added. "Awareness among people has become exceptional," said Mr al Reyaysa. "But we don't claim perfection. We have to be there to catch anyone acting unconscionably." According to the latest ADFCA report, two restaurants were temporarily shut down in November, compared with three restaurants and three meat counters in October.
Al Marhabani Palace Kitchen on Airport Road was closed for food safety violations that included the proliferation of flies as well as poor ventilation and lighting, food left uncovered or put on the floor and unsanitary defrosting of chicken. A member of the restaurant's management, Anwar Bel Khair, said the establishment had reopened after a temporary closure. He added that the ADFCA's requirements were unclear. "There was no need for the closure. It wouldn't make sense if every place was closed down in order to fix some problems."
Mr Bel Khair also criticised the inspectors' methods. "They come during working hours," he said. "We can't clean up while in the middle of cooking or preparing the food. If they wait an hour after we're done, they'll see the difference." Another restaurant, Al Naham Refreshments in the Old Shahama area, was closed for issues including poor general hygiene, food placed directly on the floor and the presence of cockroaches.
The ADFCA has a policy of naming restaurants that are shut down for violating food-safety provisions. In summer, the authority ordered the temporary closure of meat counters at Carrefour in Marina Mall and Lulu Hypermarket in Al Wahda Mall for offences including selling expired meat, removing labels from expired food and poor defrosting of chicken. Before food establishments are closed the ADFCA issues warnings followed by court-ordered fines.
The authority also took an additional step towards bringing into effect new regulations on food safety that could see restaurant operators face imprisonment for repeat offences with the end of a new draft law's consultation phase. Last month, draft regulation covering food-safety measures that relate to all stages of food production and preparation as well as hygiene training was posted on the ADFCA's website for comment from consumers and business owners.
Mr al Reyaysa said the process of seeking opinions from concerned individuals while legislation is being crafted was a first for the UAE. The consultation period is now over and the ADFCA, which has the authority by royal decree to unilaterally issue regulations and bylaws relating to food safety, is finalising the law in preparation for it to be signed by the authority's board. Mr al Reyaysa indicated the law likely would take effect in January.
The measure would create a legal framework that would allow the agency to take repeat food-safety violators to court, subjecting them to fines and possible jail time. It is not without opposition. Kamel Ahmed, the manager of Chili's restaurant in Marina Mall, said imprisonment was an "excessive" punitive measure. "Monetary fines, temporary closures of restaurants, these are fine," said Mr Ahmed. "But jailing someone is harsh."
The new law is not the only concrete measure taken to improve hygiene. Food establishments are currently required to send at least 40 per cent of their staff to ADFCA-accredited training courses on hygiene; Mr al Reyaysa confirmed plans were on track to expand the requirement to include every food worker in the emirate by the end of 2012. The plan could see eateries incur significant costs in training.
Cristina Veloso, the manager of the Oriental Korner restaurant on Hamdan Street, said they were careful to follow the hygiene regulations. "More than 50 per cent of our employees have undergone the hygiene training," she said. Ms Veloso said she personally pays the Dh300 that it costs to train each worker. Ramesh Shetty, the manager of the Golden Crown Restaurant in the Ziyani Area, added: "I understand why the authorities require us to have 40 per cent of our employees undergo hygiene training. However, our problem is that our employees need to be sent all the way to the institute for the required training, and this is hard for us to do. It would be much more convenient for us if the Food Control Authority sent down their trainers to our premises."
June Carrefour's meat counter in Marina Mall is shut down for three days after violations including repackaging and selling expired meat and improper defrosting of chicken in what the ADFCA said constituted "trade fraud". July Lulu Hypermarket's meat counter in Al Wahda Mall is shut down for removing production labels from meat products, selling expired meat, and altering expiry dates. August Eleven restaurants are closed and 12 labourers are taken to hospital as a result of food poisoning contracted after eating from a restaurant in Musaffah. September ADFCA steps up food safety inspections ahead of rising demand for food and sweets during the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al Fitr. October Campaign is launched to immunise five million animals in Abu Dhabi, half of the emirate's livestock, against common diseases such as foot-and-mouth, tuberculosis and pasteurellosis. November Draft food regulation is posted on the ADFCA's website asking for input from consumers and business owners on a law that could send operators of dirty restaurants to jail in addition to imposing stiff fines, as the authority comes under mounting pressure from consumers to dole out harsher punishments to offenders. ADFCA says it will issue a list of all offending restaurants in 2009 at the end of the year. * Kareem Shaheen