Spongy tomatoes and fly-infested meat are hardly the picture of hygiene one would expect to find on a quick trip to the market. And yet, for reasons that are hard to fathom, these are some of the scenes The National found during a recent spot check at Mina market in the capital.
As local food quality consultant Sven Mostegl observed during the impromptu tour, which was reported yesterday, inadequate refrigeration, poor sanitation and mixing of meat with raw vegetables are recipes for "salmonella, E. coli or severe stomach problems". And that's just a start.
Some food-borne illnesses are difficult to trace. The recent and ongoing scare over E. coli contaminated vegetables in Europe offers a prime example. But rotting food on store shelves is a pretty obvious cause and effect situation: eat a mouldy piece of fruit, get sick.
Why, then, are food suppliers and wholesale markets still offering such poor quality food?
Part of the problem lies in the gap between the law and enforcement. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) says inspectors visit the capital's markets on an average two to four times a week.
But vendors do not appear to be too worried about what inspectors will find. If retailers faced the sure threat of financial penalties or forced shutdown, they would be much more likely to clean up their shelves.
Food control officials have acknowledged that enforcement was not the first option. Last month, the authority reported that inspectors visited 79 labour camp kitchens in the western region, issuing 37 warnings and one violation. Despite clear safety issues, officials opted for leniency.
More needs doing. After several high-profile food poisoning cases in the past year, some involving fatalities, it's clear that food handlers need more than a reminder.
Abu Dhabi has strong food safety rules on the books. Meats and vegetables should never be stored in direct sunlight. Food preparation facilities must be clean. Expired products should be tossed aside. And yet foul foodstuffs are still finding their way into shopping baskets.
Last year authorities visited more than 2,900 food supply units, retail outlets and warehouses; nearly half of those visits resulted in warnings. A year later, it's clear these warnings need to be backed by enforcement.