SHARJAH // Conditions in many of Sharjah’s restaurants pose a public health hazard, a food safety expert says.
"The general hygiene in Sharjah is totally different to Dubai and Abu Dhabi," said Sven Mostegl, a catering industry professional who used to live in the emirate.
"There is no official or proper communication with the public, which is a big thing."
The emirate has a history of food poisoning cases. Last August, a three-year-old boy died from food poisoning after eating snacks from a cafeteria. He began vomiting a few minutes after eating a samosa and a shawarma bought near his home.
A month later, 10 children and two teenagers were taken to hospital with food poisoning after eating at a fast-food restaurant in a mall.
The next day, a resident died and 15 others required hospital treatment for food poisoning after eating food from an unidentified restaurant. Sharjah Municipality temporarily closed the restaurant two days later.
Mr Mostegl said he had seen extremely poor hygiene at restaurants across Sharjah, after touring round them with a National reporter.
"The worst hygiene I’ve seen in Sharjah food outlets are in restaurants, except in malls," he said. "Arab and Indian restaurants as well as shawarma shops are terrible."
At one, there were no separate preparation areas for different types of food – an invitation to contamination, said Mr Mostegl.
An old, yellow chopping board used for mutton was not cleaned nor disinfected. And the kitchen was warm enough for bacteria to thrive. "It’s about 35°C now, which means bacteria is developing on the chopping board," said Mr Mostegl.
Not only was the kitchen dirty, but the chefs had no handwash and used only one glove to handle food.
"They are also using an aluminium pot to cook the rice, which is dangerous," said Mr Mostegl. "The garbage and preparing areas are also too close to each other."
At a falafel and shawarma outlet, pickles were placed in a large bowl on a public dining table for the chef to use. "This is not allowed"” said Mr Mostegl. "There’s a very strong stench of garlic in the air too."
Rubbish and food were scattered all over the floor, in the dining hall and the kitchen, circled by hundreds of flies.
"There is no handwash, no handsoap and no separated preparation area for the chicken, meat or vegetables," said Mr Mostegl. "The workers aren't wearing any gloves or working dress, and this place is apparently full at night."
As the chef wiped his sweaty forehead with his hand before making a shawarma, he said the shop needed "cleaning up".
“Now’s not the time for people to come visit,” he said. “We have to clean up. We’re usually much tidier.”
But some residents disagree. "I stopped eating out three years ago," said Ali M, who has lived in Sharjah for 10 years. "The level of hygiene is not up to par and there’s a lot of improvement that needs to be made to bring up the standards of the restaurants here."
He and his wife have been let down even by the few restaurants they used to trust. "We both got diarrhoea for four days from one. And the situation has only got worse over the years. Now I just eat at home."
But officials insist they have the situation under control. "The municipality's food control section regularly controls restaurants and cafeterias to make sure they follow safe practices in the preparation of food," said Sultan Al Mualla, the director of the municipality.
"We inspect the workers' personal hygiene, the source of the food, storage, distribution and the disposal of damaged food."
He did not disclose numbers but said food poisoning cases were "rare".
"Especially after the implementation of our food safety programme, which is one of the leading programmes in the Gulf and has achieved excellent results so far."
Complaints about restaurant and cafe hygiene problems can be made to the municipality on 993.