As a food services consultant, this Dubai-based Indian expat knows his meats. He is picky about where he buys his chicken and mutton just as he is about the restaurants that he visits. So when he recently zeroed in on an upmarket restaurant to have his favourite steak, there was little room for doubt. Yet, he came down with food poisoning after the meal.
Thankful that he received treatment on time, the consultant, who did not want to be named, said, “There is no telling what can go wrong.'' Such fears over food safety have perhaps become more pronounced following the recent deaths of two siblings, Chelsea D'Souza, 7 and Nathan D'Souza, 5, due to suspected food poisoning after they consumed a takeaway meal from Lotus Garden, a Chinese restaurant in Dubai.
With the UAE importing most food products from across continents, the proper transportation, handling and storage of frozen and chilled foods, especially meats, are of critical concern in a hot and humid environment, experts said. But just how safe are these mechanisms? And how effective are the checks and balances down the cold food supply chain?
Khalid Mohammed Sharif, Director of the Food Control Department at the Dubai Municipality, told XPRESS: “We conduct routine inspections on all food premises and they are very comprehensive. We also test food products to ensure compliance to standards. But this isn't enough.''
“Dubai Municipality encourages its stakeholders to work as a team and have voluntary standards to ensure food safety. If you look at the best food companies in the world, they are all self-regulated,'' he said.
“We aim to promote this food safety culture through education, awareness, team-building measures and implementation of food safety management systems like HACCP,'' he said.
HACCP or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points is a systematic preventive approach to food safety which helps identify and minimise potential hazards at various stages of food production, including packaging and distribution. It is a good hygiene practice and a market requirement like ISO 22000 which defines a set of food safety management requirements.
While HACCP compliance is mandatory for all four and five-star hotels, large catering companies, manufacturers and hypermarkets in Dubai, there is a question mark over smaller establishments. “We are looking at implementing HACCP-based food safety management systems for small retail outlets,'' said Sharif.
Colin D. Campbell, executive chef of a reputed catering service whose central kitchen at Ras Al Khor prepares and supplies up to 40,000 meals a day to hotel staff, schools and hospitals and labour camps, said, “We are HACCP-certified and have four hygiene officers and a food safety manager. Traceability at every stage is maintained through stringent internal and external audits.''
Colin said temperature plays a critical role in food safety. Prolonged exposure of food to the “danger zone'' of 5oC to 65oC can spoil food as bacteria - spoilage and pathogen - multiply in this range.
The spoilage bacteria, which make food smelly, rancid or discoloured, do not cause food poisoning. But the pathogen bacteria, which leave no such hints, make people sick when they consume contaminated food, he said.
“It is important to know that temperature has to be controlled right from production till consumption,'' said Sharif.
“The municipality requires all food establishments to monitor the working temperature of food storage equipments and record it at least three times a day. Inspectors go through the temperature records maintained by the establishment and verify this by measuring the food temperature randomly,'' he said.
For meat products imported here, the cold food supply chain typically begins thousands of kilometres away at the source. When a consignment lands at a local port or airport, the importers – there are around 2,000 of them in the country – rely on the source's phyto sanitary certificate which certifies that the company has met with industry standards while slaughtering the animal. Each animal carries the date of slaughter.
The consignments are then moved to the warehouses of the importers. While there is little risk in an unbroken chain, the food consultant explained how split consignments to meet smaller orders pose a huge risk as frozen foods get exposed to heat for anywhere between one to six hours while they are being offloaded in parts to long queues of freezer vehicles. The subsequent transit to the stores also has its risks if the required temperature is not maintained in the transporting freezer vehicles.
Although the municipality has its checks, be it meat or other products, sources said the process is largely self-regulated.
Shaikh Ajmal Safee, Product Development and Quality Excellence Manager at Al Ghurair Foods, one of the largest food manufacturers in the Middle East, said, all units in the group are HACCP-certified. “At our distribution facility at Arabian House, all chilled and frozen products are maintained at specific temperatures recommended by the Municipality. Dry products like flour, rice, pulses and maize grits are stored at 20-25 ˚C while products like eggs and mayonnaise are stored at 4˚C-10˚C.''
“In order to maintain quality, especially since there is regular movement from store to vehicle and distribution warehouse to customers, we are planning to deploy temperature data loggers that would ensure the maintenance of the necessary cold chain at all times,'' he said.
Chris Weiner, General Manager of Dubai-based ArabIT, a service provider of the HACCP-compliant Telargo telemetry fleet management system that can send automatic alerts to food monitoring inspectors, said in the normal course, “Each transporter is required to monitor the food and the temperature in which it is transported while in transit during the next to last leg of the supply chain.''
“This process is largely manual and requires personal intervention to review and maintain records. As a result, data is not collected on each and every trip, so results are indicative as opposed to being accurate,'' Weiner said.
Temperature monitoring apart, the food consultant alleged that there are instances where the slaughter dates for meats are altered to clear stocks. Relabeling is sometimes done at the level of the distributor or the retailer as expiry dates approach, he alleged, adding that these products are then passed on to the end-users at a cheaper rate.
The expert also alleged that there are cases of cross-contamination where meats like lamb and beef are mixed and sold as boneless chunks of beef are cheaper and easier to source. “These meats are flavoured with spices, especially in some banquets, where you cannot tell the difference,'' he alleged.
Penalties for such violations vary. “With relabeling, penalties depend on the type and extent of modification and the risk involved. If it is a minor offence caused unintentionally like omitting to declare an ingredient on the label, the fine would be around Dh100. If there is intentional relabeling of food on a large scale, the penalty could be very high and lead to legal action involving the court,'' Sharif said.
“Cross-contamination is difficult to prove,'' he said, adding that, “The fine starts at Dh200.'' If it is a repeated offence, the fine doubles.
In the case of temperature abuse, the penalty could start from Dh200 if the risk is low and the violation is not repeated but gross temperature abuse could lead to hefty fines and closure of the establishment and legal action.
The penalties are along the same lines with regard to sale of foods past their expiry dates at supermarkets.
Tips for consumers:
At the supermarket:
- Buy only from a credible, hygienic source.
- Beware of a good bargain as there could be more than meets the eye.
- Study meats to know the fine difference in their colour and texture.
- Ensure that meats are maintained at the right temperature.
- Frozen: –18oC or below; chilled: 1 to 5oC; cooked and hot foods: 60oC or above; No food on display should be kept in the range of 4oC and 60oC.
- Pay attention to labels, expiry dates. While frozen foods last up to a year, the shelf-life for chilled meats is around three months. Fresh meat lasts for around three days. But remember, expiry dates mean little if the temperature is not properly controlled.
- With cold cuts – and other perishable foods like cooked food, milk, and fresh juices – shelf life must be more closely monitored for temperature control. Buying milk at the last hour of expiry is riskier than buying biscuits on the last day of expiry.
At a restaurant:
- Eat or order only from a tried-and-tested source.
- Make sure the place is hygienic with food handlers using gloves etc.
- Know the taste and texture of your meats. The lesser the flavour/spice, the better is the differentiation.
- Avoid buffet meals at bargain prices, especially at the smaller restaurants.
- Ask questions and report discrepancies.
- Make sure the meat you buy reaches the refrigerator at your home in time. Food exposed to the danger zone of 4°C to 60°C is a feeding ground for bacteria which multiply every 10 minutes.
- Make sure cooked food is refrigerated to avoid such exposure.
- When refrigerated food is to be used, heat it at least till 80oC before use.
- Discard food that has changed in colour, odour or turns rancid.
- Never put back thawed food into the freezer to be reused again. Thaw only as much as you require.
- Check expiry dates of ingredients and regularly clear outdated foodstuffs.
- Prepare/cook and consume fresh.
- Use of probe thermometers to check temperature of foods and other hygiene monitoring systems to check for food residues or microbes in water and on surfaces also helps
By Sharmila Dhal,
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