Cutting away rot in the food industry

For the most part, food safety is fairly intuitive. Wash your hands, keep the kitchen clean, store perishables appropriately.

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Meat sweltering past its expiry date; dairy goods curdling at room temperature; cockroaches scurrying over pastries. Those were only some of the problems exposed by recent food safety inspections in the capital. Authorities have forced 76 restaurants and groceries to close temporarily, and imposed 800 fines. Those figures are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority clearly has made an initiative to clean up unsafe practices in the food industry. On the other, the range and number of offences reveal a miasma still plaguing a food and beverage sector that has been poorly regulated in the past.
Most food poisoning incidents are probably not reported, but there have been some egregious cases. Abu Dhabi's inspection regime was partly spurred by the deaths of four small children last year, three in Dubai and one in Sharjah. The sheer pointlessness of those deaths, which could so easily have been avoided, compounds the tragedy. For the most part, food safety is fairly intuitive. Wash your hands, keep the kitchen clean, store meat and other perishables appropriately and pay attention to expiry dates. For professional establishments that fail to meet these standards, the excuse that they didn't know the regulations hardly washes. Laziness and poor management are more probably to blame.
Consumers also have to take responsibility for the quality and safety of the food they eat. Some of the worst cases come from kitchens in the home. Let us hope that the current campaign - particularly the publicity it generates about food safety - can impart some common sense on personal food storage and preparation. Last year's inspections were only the first step. In 2010, Abu Dhabi authorities plan more inspections, clearer guidelines and even jail sentences for proprietors who fail to clean up their act. In the past, operations were first given a warning, then fined, and finally temporarily closed if offences continued. There was no shortage of opportunities to improve. Outlets that were closed have promised to do better, but they deserved the adverse publicity of being named - as they were in this newspaper. By that time, however, the damage to public health had already been done. The true measure of the inspection regime's success will come if, this time next year, we have no enforced closures to report.