x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dubai in push for food safety database

Officials from the municipality, police and health departments will meet next week to continue work towards a central database for food safety complaints.

DUBAI // Officials from the municipality, police and health departments will meet next week to continue work towards a central database for food safety complaints. By creating a central tracking system, the emirate's hospitals would be able to reduce the impact of any food-borne infection outbreak, according to Dr Ali al Marzouqi, head of public health and safety at the Dubai Health Authority.

"If we establish something where you can quickly track potential causes [of food poisoning], it would be a very good thing," Dr al Marzouqi said. "When it comes to food poisoning, immediate action needs to be taken to minimise the effect." The number of critical food poisoning cases in Dubai has rapidly decreased, and account for only one to two per cent of total complaints received by the Dubai Municipality's Food Control Department.

The remaining cases are split between major complaints including cases of food contamination and minor cases related to violations of hygiene, according to the municipality. The director of the Food Control Department, Khalid Sharif al Awadhi, said they are developing ways to combat breaches of food safety rules and regulations. "During the Dubai International Food Safety Conference held in February, we had a workshop with the US Centers for Disease Control on how to best harmonise procedures and investigations," Mr al Awadhi said. "Since then, we have had various meetings with health authorities about implementing this and will hold another meeting next week."

Mr al Awadhi said most of the food in the UAE is imported and passes strict inspections before going through a port of entry. Dr Abdulla al Khayat, chief executive of Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai and a paediatrician, said the emirate's main women and children's hospital is also working to implement a broader in-house poisoning alert system to better manage information about toxic poisoning cases. Alerting staff to a possible outbreak of infection at a restaurant or hotel, for example, before any cases arrived would be of huge benefit, he said, particularly when it comes to young patients.

"If the police, municipality, health authorities and hospitals were working in coordination, it would allow everyone to work more quickly and efficiently," Dr al Khayat said. If food poisoning did occur, Dubai Municipality would be informed by the police or hospital. A thorough investigation would follow to identify the type of food eaten, where and at what time. Only then could the bacteria related to a specific food be identified.

"Hospitals have their own data and we have data on the inspection. Now we can share this knowledge," Mr al Awadhi said. Typical problems were cross-contamination in kitchens between raw and cooked food, personal hygiene, general cleanliness and bad storage, he said. Dr Aisha Abushelaibi, vice dean of the faculty of food and agriculture at UAE University, said better public awareness would help. "We cannot always blame manufacturers, because sometimes the consumer and handlers are the cause," she said. "For example, if I buy clean food and prepare it with unwashed hands, I am putting myself at risk."

One of the main focuses at the faculty is on educating students to apply knowledge so they can educate others. "There are lots of types and groups of bacteria which come with different elements, risks and symptoms. Some can leave you sick for a couple of hours, others can put you in hospital for days," she said. David Hadley, chief executive of Emirates Healthcare Holdings Limited, which includes The City Hospital and Welcare Hospital, said if food poisoning became a notifiable disease - like tuberculosis or HIV - the procedure should be easy to implement.

Many people approach the police rather than hospitals after suffering food poisoning in an attempt to get compensation, he explained. This meant some cases might slip through the net. In June last year, two siblings, Chelsea and Nathan D'Souza, aged seven and five, died of suspected food poisoning after they ate takeaway food from the Lotus Garden restaurant in Al Qusais.  Prosecutors accused the chef, supervisor and the restaurant of storing food unhygienically, which resulted in the cultivation of bacteria. 

melshoush@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Mitya Underwood