x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Passes for 90% of school canteens

New inspection unit finds most meet safety standards, though a small number fail because of inadequate storage facilities.

DUBAI // About 90 per cent of the canteens in Dubai's schools are meeting food safety standards, inspectors said yesterday. "While most schools were found to be satisfactory, some were not. Around 10 per cent of the schools were not satisfactory. We are working with these school canteens to change their systems," said Ahmed al Ali, the head of the municipality's food inspection section.

Earlier this year, the municipality established a special 55-member team to monitor food safety standards in a total of 493 educational institutions, including state and private schools, colleges, universities, vocational schools, and nurseries. They have made 85 inspections so far, including follow-up visits. The institutions that did not pass have been ordered to fix their shortcomings immediately or face punitive action.

"The most common violation was of food not being stored properly, at the right temperatures. Also, old equipment and facilities were being used in some of the canteens to handle food," said Mr al Ali. The inspectors are checking how schools store their food, the cleanliness of their kitchens, storage and serving areas, as well as the hygiene of staff. The canteen workers also need to have valid health insurance cards and the companies' operating licences up to date. Officials noted that almost 90 per cent of the schools depend on food suppliers who prepare food in separate facilities. They stressed that these companies should also ensure they have permission to prepare, transport and distribute food.

"Earlier, anyone could serve food in schools but now we have introduced special catering licences for schools. This year, only those who are approved by us and have a proper licence have been allowed to operate in schools," Mr al Ali said. If any supplier-prepared food served in a canteen was found to be bad, inspectors would be visiting that company as well, he said. The remaining 10 per cent of schools prepare their own food, which also requires special permission.

However, Mr al Ali maintained that it was too early to penalise offenders. "We have not given any penalties yet. There are violations but they are not so bad that we should take a tough stand now. We are giving them time to change their methods," he said, although he added that repeated violations could lead to fines or licences being cancelled. The issue of food hygiene came to the fore earlier this year after food poisoning was suspected in the deaths of four children - Nathan and Chelsea D'Souza, aged five and eight, in Dubai; Marwa Faisal, four, from Sharjah; and two-year-old Rishad Pranav in Dubai, though no case involved school canteens.

When asked about the issue of nutrition in schools, Mr al Ali said the inspectors could only concentrate on cleanliness right now. "Our job as food inspectors is to make sure that hygiene is maintained in the food that is served," he said. The municipality has said that it is working with the Dubai Health Authority and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which manages all educational institutions in Dubai, to prepare a list of food items that should not be served in school canteens.

The list may eventually include junk food such as French fries and other items deemed to be unhealthy. pmenon@thenational.ae