x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Public vigilance plea for food hygiene

Six-month trial of a public alert system sees large increase in calls to authorities about suspect restaurants and retailers.

In yet another measure to get tough on restaurateurs and food retailers who flout hygiene laws, authorities have formalised the highly successful hotline system for public complaints that had been on trial for six months.

During the trial, food safety authorities processed 466 calls - almost as many as were processed in all of 2008 through regular channels. Dubai alone has reported a 25 per cent surge in the number of calls to its alert hotline in the past two weeks. Five of the seven emirates now have dedicated numbers for reporting suspected violations of food safety standards. Khalid Sharif, the director of Dubai Municipality's food control department, said he believed that the popularity of the hotline reflected increased public vigilance.

"The rising number of complaints related to food and food facilities in the last period proves that the public is adequately aware of the necessity to communicate with the food control authority in order to spot all kinds of infractions that may occur during the production phase or in food facilities," he said. "We believe the increase in the number of calls is due to the increase in public awareness of the authority's work."

The need to improve food hygiene was highlighted recently when two young children died of suspected food poisoning - the exact cause is still to be confirmed - after eating a Chinese takeaway meal on June 12. Their deaths followed that of a four-year-old girl in Sharjah on May 30 after she ate what medical officials said was contaminated food. In Ras al Khaimah, officials are training 10 new inspectors and launching a public awareness campaign, while Umm al Qaiwain last week opened a food-quality laboratory to spearhead its fight against substandard food.

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority has scrapped its previous complaint process and replaced it with a centralised government contact number to streamline the alerts system and speed up inspector response times. The UAE's high summer temperatures, which can reach almost 50C, increase the chances of food spoiling and lead to conditions that aid the growth of toxic bacteria. Adel al Suwaidi, the manager of the Public Health and Environment Department in Ras al Khaimah, said he had seen a reduction in the number of complaints, which he believed was a consequence of the severe punishments handed out.

"When we receive complaints we act very quickly," Mr al Suwaidi said. "We want companies to co-operate with inspections and deal with us as they care for their customers. There is no corruption here. We don't make exceptions. We are clear with everyone." Businesses that fail to meet safety requirements will be closed immediately, Mr al Suwaidi warned. Officials in Umm al Qaiwain said they did not have a telephone hotline but that one might be launched in the future, adding that a food quality laboratory was opened last week to combat substandard products.

The Abu Dhabi hotline puts callers through to a federal government switchboard where they can report incidents of dangerous food handling or related issues. "We consider every person in Abu Dhabi to be our eyes and ears; to be like an inspector and tell us when they discover problems," said Rashid al Shairiqi, the director general of the food control authority. The authority said 556 calls were processed in 2008, compared with 466 in the fist six months of 2009. Calls to Dubai's emergency number have shot up to about 50 per day, an increase of around 25 per cent, in the two weeks since the apparent food poisoning deaths of the two children in Dubai.

Sharjah Municipality refused to comment on any new measures taken to improve food safety. Mr Sharif said the Dubai food control department aimed to underline the dangers posed by bacteria, such as bacillus cereus, which can develop when starchy foods like rice, potatoes and pasta are reheated. He said the authority's team of 140 inspectors would respond quickly to health concerns, particularly if there was a danger of multiple contaminations.

Mr Sharif said that during the cooler months, when people tended to eat outdoors, most of the risk came from poorly prepared food. During the hot summer period, the main danger lay in reheated or badly stored food. "People are aware of the dangers of bacteria such as salmonella, but they forget that there are other dangerous bacteria," Mr Sharif said. He noted that bacteria flourished in temperatures of between 15 and 20 degrees, often found in air conditioned homes overnight.

He reminded people never to store food at room temperatures, and to ensure that refrigerators were set to below 5 degrees centigrade and were not overstocked. Ghanem Saeed Ali, the head of Umm al Qaiwain municipality's public health department, said inspectors had closed several restaurants and cafes this year in response to complaints. He said there had been no food poisoning cases so far this year.

"We do not have many problems with food poisoning," he said. "It rarely happens here, but if it did we would deal with it." Khaleed al Muain, the head of Ajman public health department, said the emirate had not detected any cases of food poisoning. chamilton@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Yasin Kakande and Anna Zacharias