x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Shops to blame when food turns into a science experiment

Ensuring produce is fresh will enhance the UAE's reputation as a place where food safety matters.

One of the healthiest buys for my dirham is Romaine lettuce because you can do so many things with it. From Caesar salad to sandwiches, it's always handy to have around.

And there is also another benefit to having these delicious green leaves on hand: the bug benefit. Perhaps it's because less pesticide is being used, or simply poor quality control at the grocers, but paradoxically it's a good thing in my household because my family uses these creepy crawlies in home-school science projects.

Recently I found, happily buried in lettuce leaves, a chunky, green, caterpillar, who was just beginning to munch. Sadly for it, I had to interrupt the meal by insisting that I make my own.

Luckily, it was a temporary delay. I quickly put it an old mayonnaise jar and tossed in a few leaves of crunchy greens. For nearly three weeks, we took notes on his activities as part of a life-science lesson.

An occasional bug is not a problem, but one thing that does worry me is the brownish-red tinge that often lines the edges of my lettuce, an obvious sign of decay. I know that the theory here is to avoid waste, but I am not too keen on experimenting with unknown substances in my food.

I can pluck out a ladybug or caterpillar now and then, but pesticides are more difficult. As for diseased leaves, why am I paying for them?

Food is expensive enough, and paying for food that is inedible is frustrating. Why not pick a better lettuce, you might ask. Well, how? In my neighbourhood, most of the supermarkets cover lettuce, cauliflower and cabbage in plastic wrap that sometimes makes it difficult to examine them for flaws. Another problem is that the lighting in stores deliberately misleads.

Let me suggest a small experiment. While shopping for green vegetables, pick the produce up and move it away from the display lighting. See if the colour changes. If it appears pale, then it's not as fresh as you think. "In the food industry, eye appeal is buy appeal," boasts Promolux, a lighting manufacturer that specialises in food displays.

Another company promises to "make your produce look more appealing by bringing out the best in their colours". Whereas most consumers will be concerned with quality and freshness, for the most part retailers are focused on adjectives such as "warmth", "mood" and "comfort", all suggesting that making money by gulling the consumer overrules actual edibility.

I wonder, do supermarkets get awards for mood lighting? If not, perhaps they should.

From outward appearances at least, most of the shops in my area are still in catch-up mode when it comes to super-slick lighting. The neighbourhood shops are still using old tricks, like skewing the ultraviolet lights to make produce look greener.

I know that there are inspectors making surprise investigations to ensure that food is properly stored and maintained. I've seen them making store managers sweat and talk fast if they have been found fudging the rules.

However, perhaps more inspections are needed, as it often seems to me that the neighbourhood shops are getting a little slack in ensuring quality.

My family might be able to shrug off insects inhabiting our salad, and even turn them into educational props, but most people would balk at bugs in their breakfast or fungus on their fruit. These shops are putting people's welfare on the line because of a chronic lack of concern about quality and freshness.

Perhaps it would be better if stores stocked less produce each week. Or perhaps there is room for a real farmer's market, where shoppers would have a chance to buy food fresh from local farms. I'm sure there are other creative solutions to this problem.

All the special lighting in the world can't change the colour of the money wasted on food that's not fit to eat.

The UAE is seen as being extraordinarily friendly to business, which is certainly a good thing. Some might think that catching business owners out on their mistakes might make the country look bad, but in reality it can only have the opposite effect.

There needs to be better regulation of sellers of poor-quality produce. That would only benefit the reputation of the country as a place where food quality and safety matter.


Maryam Ismail is a teacher who splits her time between the US and the UAE