x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Emirate's fish market is a 'paradise for bacteria'

At Sharjah's fish market in Al Jubail, the food expert Sven Mostegl finds hygiene well below acceptable standards - and a worker wiping down a chopping board with his own damp sock.

Sven Mostegl, a food consultant, points out issues of concern at the fish market in Sharjah.
Sven Mostegl, a food consultant, points out issues of concern at the fish market in Sharjah.

SHARJAH // The air is suffocatingly hot and thick with the stench of blood and fish. Bloody aprons, exposed to the sun for hours on end, hang along the concrete walls.

A man sits on one of the many plastic chopping boards that lie around Sharjah's fish market in Al Jubail. Five minutes ago, he was gutting a fish on the same board. His clothes are matted with blood and entrails.

The surfaces of all the chopping boards are rough and perforated with thousands of knife cuts. According to Sven Mostegl, a food consultant, "they haven't been changed in the last six to 12 months".

The plastic, once white, is marked with black lines of dirt and dried up blood.

"This allows bacteria to enter the cutting board and contaminate the fish," he says. "Normally, you have to change it every three months."

"This is a paradise for bacteria," Mr Mostegl says, as a worker wipes down a chopping board with his own damp sock.

The National was touring the market after a food safety campaign launched last month by Sharjah Municipality. At the time, the municipality said it had fined about 1,120 establishments for failing to meet hygiene standards - but if this market is anything to go by, little has improved.

In the selling area, fresh fish intestines dangle from chopping boards while dried-up fish is displayed on pieces of wood, allowing splinters to enter the skin.

Workers wear only one glove - and no masks - as they fillet the fish, and the tap they use to wash their hands hangs off a cracked wall that crawls with insects.

"This is a paradise for bacteria," Mr Mostegl says, as a nearby worker wipes down a chopping board with his own damp sock. "Almost everything is wrong. The boards need immediate cleaning. In Japan and Germany, they clean them with a lot of water and they have food-proof disinfectant."

The fish should be kept on ice, he says, to keep it about 5°C, but the temperature in the market hovers about 43°C. Fish should be handled between 16°C and 18°C, according to Mr Mostegl. "The temperature is absolutely not OK and if the municipality saw these cutting boards in any hotel, they would issue a warning and a ban."

There is no sign of appropriate work dress, disinfectant, soap nor of general hygiene. "You are not allowed to work in your street clothes," Mr Mostegl says, pointing at several workers. "This kind of work requires both hand gloves."

His thermometer displays 16.5°C when placed inside one of the market's fish. "It feels too warm and the heat is increasing," he says.

"The squid is at 23°C. It is iced, at least, but not enough. It should be fully covered with ice," Mr Mostegl says. The same treatment applied to the kingfish at 19°C and the red snapper at 15°C.

"I agree it's hard to keep cool in the desert, but they can at least reach 5°C to 7°C. Most of it won't last long without ice."

Although the shrimps appear to be covered with more ice than the rest, the thermometer displays a grim 27.4°C. Again, it should be under 5°C.

A bunch of dry fish kept in plastic bags is also meant to be kept at room temperature, about 25°C. "It is definitely more here,"  Mr Mosteg saysl, "but we have to remember where we are."

If food, whether cooked or uncooked, is kept for more than two hours in the danger zone, between 5°C and 60°C, bacteria proliferates.

"People will buy this fish and keep it in their fridge until tomorrow when bacteria consumption will be higher and affect their stomach,"  Mr Mostegl says. He says the fish needs at least three bags of ice between 6am - when between five and ten tonnes of fish are brought in each day - and noon, triple what the workers were using.

"There are truckloads of ice but the sellers won't buy more because they want to save money," he says.

Although he admits the market has a good selection of fish, some of it is cut open and slowly deteriorating in the heat. A lone tuna manages to meet his standards, sitting in a plastic container full of ice.

Most of the fish eyes are not clear, which means they are dry, according to Mr Mostegl. "They are fresh because their gills are red but they must be eaten now."

The National approached Sharjah Municipality, but its spokeswoman declined to comment.