Unhygienic food outlets: Is monitoring the answer? | Sunday Observer

Unhygienic food outlets: Is monitoring the answer?

The refrigerator with mixed food items
The refrigerator with mixed food items

The commercial capital of the country, Colombo is home to some 600,000 residents and another 500,000 floating population. The busy lifestyle and excess income especially of the middle class have paved way for the city to have 1,054 food outlets to be exact, ranging from petti kade(kiosk) to high end restaurants.

In the last couple of weeks, by raids or ‘surprise inspections’ as the Chief Medical Officer of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), Dr. Ruwan Wijayamuni calls it, the public were made aware of the dark side of the lavish looking restaurants in the city. The raids proved that certain top class restaurants are no different to the unhygienic food joints like the Petti Kade.

Surprise inspections

Last week, a famous restaurant which emphasises ‘healthy eating’, was inspected by the CMCs food inspectors who found food items improperly stored, a violation of food safety regulations.

However, responding to the adverse publicity received, the restaurant owner issued a press statement in which he stated that the refrigerator with mixed food items was not a food storage unit used by the restaurant. It was just a refrigerator used to store disposals.

“We wish to inform our valued patrons that we are sincerely sorry for the oversight on our part in terms of the disposal storage and have immediately rectified the matter. We also wish to place on record that no contaminated food was ever used in any of the food served to customers and we continue to be committed to maintaining the highest quality standards in food safety. We will also ensure that such incidents will not take place in the future,” the statement said.

A couple of weeks ago a Chinese restaurant named ‘Chinese Street Food’ which was in the lofty Colombo City Centre was closed down by the relevant authority - Food Studio (Pvt) Ltd, following a viral video of a dish at its restaurants which had worms in it.

Chairman of Food Studio, Taitoom Lim had issued a notice stating that Chinese Street Food had taken immediate action to rectify the situation.

“We are both disappointed and extremely apologetic that one of our valued customers had to experience a decline in our offerings,” he had said in the notice.

So far the Public Health Department has conducted inspection rounds at 162 eating houses, out of which 69 places were found wanting. Notices were issued to 25 restaurants. Meanwhile, there are 55 restaurants to be prosecuted.

“It is our utmost duty to keep the food safety and hygiene aspects to the standards. Especially food safety should be number one. But we are aware of some incidents in top class restaurants where there were worms and fungi. With the social media coming in to play, in a matter of seconds it could get publicised. It really ruins the food industry,” said Dr. Wijayamuni.

Duty overload

The CMC’s Public Health Department (PHD), is considered the watch dog concerning implementation of provisions in Food Act No 26 of 1980, amended in 1991. Under the Act, Medical Officers of Health (MOH), Food Inspectors (FI) and Public Health Inspectors (PHI) are designated as authorised officers to look in to all aspects of food hygiene.

Colombo city which is 36 square kilometres, is subdivided in to six electorates - Colombo North, Colombo Central A and B, Borella, Colombo East and Colombo West. The CMC has appointed one MOH to each electorate. The six electorates are further divided to 47 municipal votes with a PHI assigned to each vote. All eating houses in a particular vote is the responsibility of the relevant PHI. Nonetheless, food hygiene is not the PHIs only responsibility. Air and noise pollution; HIV, Dengue and TB control and other such areas come under their purview as well. There is a shortfall of staff in the PHD. It has only 47 PHIs to do the work of 65 PHIs and only one FI to cover the entire city.

“Luckily we had only a few dengue cases this time. So I was able to get the full capacity of officers in to the inspections. The PHIs were divided in to six groups under the MOHs,” said Dr. Wijayamuni.

Practical issues in law enforcement is another problems the PHD faces. “When we file a case it takes nearly six months to call it before courts. And for us to get a closure order it generally takes three and a half years. In the developed world, health officers can close eateries then and there themselves. In our legislations, we don’t have such power,” added Dr. Wijayamuni.

The 10% reality

In conducting food quality inspections PHD officers utilise ‘H 800’ criteria which includes the status of the kitchen, raw materials being used, water quality, solid waste management strategy, gas waste management, training of the restaurant workers, attire of workers, quality of the serving area and many others. Marks are given accordingly and anyone who gets more than 80, receives the ‘A’ grade while places with more than 90 marks receive ‘A star’ grade.

PHD has stopped issuing ‘B’ grades, because restaurant owners reportedly are ashamed to display it. In developed countries displaying the grade of a restaurant is a must while in Sri Lanka it is not compulsory but voluntary.

Of the 1,054 eating houses in Colombo only 95 have achieved ‘A’ and 15 ‘A star’ grades, which is a clear sign that only 10 per cent of eateries in the Colombo city follow best practices of food hygiene. As a timely solution to the issue, Dr. Wijayamuni introduced a separate certificate to all the eating houses in the city which are approved by CMC as a certified place for dining. The Yellow colour certificate with the signature of Dr.Wijayamuni also states that poor food hygienic standards may lead to the withdrawal of the plaque. In the same certificate, a telephone number (2 676161) is provided for customer complaints.

Scams as well?

Among the seized food items in the past couple of days which amounted to more than 350 kg, mostly consisted of Kottu Rotti (81 kg) and Kottu Curry (57 kg), Rice (42 kg) and of Boiled Eggs (30 kg). All were destroyed by the eatery owners, themselves under the supervision of PHD officers.

“I always receive calls when such inspections are done. But I told them that nothing can be done as we work according to the ‘bail and bond’ system. This time, the Mayor has also instructed us to take stern action against wrong doers,” said Dr. Wijayamuni.

Meanwhile, President of the Chefs’ Guild of Lanka Chef Dimuthu Kumarasinghe told the Sunday Observer that food hygiene is the responsibility of the Chef of the respective restaurant.

“The chef must conduct daily inspections in the Kitchen. In fact the Butchery is the place we need to pay more attention to, because most of the time meats are responsible for food poisoning. Vegetables hardly become accountable for food poisoning,” he said.

“ I think small restaurants do not have a proper monitoring system. But in star hotels where we work, there is a monitoring mechanism. However, at the end of the day, it is the Chef’s responsibility in providing safe food to the public,” he said.

Dr. Wijayamuni’s advice to the public is to take a receipt always wherever they dine. “Otherwise it is very difficult for us to file cases without proper proof.

Once we verify the issue through a laboratory we can take action against the eatery. But in such a case the customer has to be a witness. Because there can be scams as well. Very recently we came across an incident, where a patient had demanded a discount telling about a worm in a lemon juice provided by the hospital. The hospital had given the discount. But there was a lack of evidence to prove the incident. Also even after receiving the discount, the patient had shared a video of a juice cup with a worm in it. There are people of that nature too, which makes it a very difficult job for our staff,” he said.