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Sensible standards for small grocers

There are health and safety issues regarding the capital's small shops, but a solution shouldn't enforce too much uniformity on these individual enterprises.

Neighbourhood grocery stores, known locally as "dukhan", have been part of the fabric of Abu Dhabi for a long time. Despite their small size, they sell almost everything from candy to toothpaste. But many fail basic hygiene standards. Rats run in the walls, insects swarm in the air, and rotten or expired food items fester on the shelves.

Health Authority-Abu Dhabi reported a rise in food poisoning cases in Abu Dhabi between 2010 and 2011, from 561 to 667 cases, which is close to the number of cases in just the first six months of this year: 627. The causes of all of these cases are still unknown, but substandard goods at the store can't be ruled out. A recent surprise visit by food-safety inspectors to Musaffah - to examine expiry dates, freezer temperatures, the condition of fruits and vegetables, and sanitation - revealed that more than a third of the grocery stores had at least minor violations.

In an effort to address the issue, Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) announced new rules last year to overhaul storage and sanitation of corner shops, in a bid to make them more hygienic. The intentions are sound. But the modernisation of these shops comes at a price that many owners cannot afford. As The National reports today, some grocery owners say paying for required upgrades - which may include automatic doors, steel roofing, CCTV cameras, computerised tills and lower, more accessible shelves - could set them back as much as Dh300,000. And so, by the deadline on Monday, the only option for many of the 1,300 corner groceries in Abu Dhabi will be to close for good.

Some owners will pack up and leave. One says he may move his business to Oman. Another is planning to move back to India. But the majority, we suspect, are like Naheef Murikkin Kattil: "I don't know what to do."

Consumers will suffer, too, as grocery options will decline. In more crowded parts of the city - along Hamdan Street, for instance - one new Baqala chain store remains where three shops once did brisk business.

Every city must have zoning laws pertaining to health and safety. But those standards can be enforced without imposing a uniformity that might erode the unique character of a place.

This law has been passed; those shops that remain will comply. We hope, however, that when standards have been met there will be some added flexibility.

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