Dishing up food for the masses is no mean feat

Labour camp owner turns to futuristic technology to produce enough meals to feed army of construction workers.

Chef Phelistas Vunya, left, and kitchen hand Farouk Mutebi get to work at Food Pro Solutions' industrial kitchen in Jebel Ali, Dubai. Callaghan Walsh / The National
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ABU DHABI // Feeding the massed ranks of Abu Dhabi's construction workers is no easy task. But Otaiba bin Saeed al Otaiba, owner of the Labotel labour camp, believes his high-tech industrial kitchen will eventually be able to offer safe meals to nearly 100,000 of them.

The food safety regulator, the ADFCA, estimates there will soon be more than 602,000 workers in the emirate. By law, each labour camp should have a central kitchen and meals provided by a licensed caterer.

In practice, however, some allow labourers to cook their own meals, while others buy in food from unlicensed restaurants.

The result is little control over the kitchen hygiene and no guarantee that food has been transported or stored at safe temperatures.

This can prove to be disastrous, as seen last week when more than 236 workers at Habshan labour camp, in Al Gharbia, were struck down with food poisoning after eating meals from an unlicensed caterer.

When ADFCA inspectors moved in to find the cause of the mass poisoning, they found a kitchen they described as "squalid".

Cockroaches were discovered in water dispensers and rice was being kept in unsafe conditions for more than four hours. Inspectors destroyed more than half a tonne of cooked rice and shut down the caterer.

According to Sven Mostegl, the chief operating officer for Food Pro, employers often look at the economics of feeding their workers in the wrong way.

"You can save a couple of dirhams by feeding workers not-so-healthy food," he said, "but if you're losing a percentage of your workforce to illness each day, you're losing much more money on a lack of productivity. You're only earning an income off people if they are at the construction site."

When Mr al Otaiba began developing his Labotel labour city in Musaffah, he shared many of Mr Mostegl's concerns.

Mr al Otaiba said: "It's no joke when you're dealing with feeding thousands of workers and you're meeting safety standards."

On any given day, the camp serves about 10 different cuisines, with North Indian, South Indian, Nepalese, both vegetarian and meat options, Pakistani, Arabic, Filipino, Chinese and Turkish food all finding their way to the table.

For now he is buying in the meals from a handful of catering companies, but within nine months he plans to have his own industrial kitchen up and running under the Food Pro name.

Eventually, it should be able to dish up around 300,000 meals a day, enough to feed five camps the size of Labotel. In the beginning, Mr al Otaiba hopes to provide 100,000 meals each day - about a third of the kitchen's total capacity.

"A hundred thousand meals a day; it's tens of tonnes of food. That's a lot," he said.

To cook in those quantities safely, he is planning to build a modern, industrial kitchen. "Machines can detect if there is steel in rice - you can't have hundreds of people checking each bit of rice, so you need an industrial process."

In many catering kitchens, meals are cooked in 500-litre kettles over a single flame, and stirred by hand. A single dish of chicken biryani takes several hours to prepare, with much of its nutritional value being destroyed in the process.

Instead, Food Pro's system uses multiple heat sources, including the sides and middle of the kettle, and timings are automated.

The result is cooking times that are a fraction of the older methods, preserving the nutrients and cutting the risk of contamination.

Small, electronic thermometers, the size of a fridge magnet, will be left inside the food containers. In much the same way as an aeroplane's black box, the thermometers will record any variations in temperature, allowing the kitchen to track any problems.

Most catering units charge between Dh7.5 and Dh9 per person, per day, for three meals a day. Mr Mostegl believes his food should be not much more expensive.

There is a final problem. Meals can be prepared in gleaming, high-tech kitchens and delivered hygienically hot, but there is still little any employer can do about what happens to them after they are handed over.

Though it is safer to have separate deliveries for each meal of the day, leaving less chance of food spoiling in the sun, a single delivery in the morning is cheaper, and preferred by many companies.

As long as meals are transported properly, a single delivery falls within ADFCA's food safety guidelines. But with no rules about how food is stored once it has been delivered, it often sits around for hours before it is eaten.

Mr al Otaiba hopes the government will tighten the regulations on delivery and storage.

But with hundreds of thousands more workers moving into the emirate, enforcement will be a massive challenge. Mohamed al Reyaysa, the authority's communications director, says the ADFCA is "gearing ourselves up for the task".

"We will assign more staff for the tasks and make sure camps are regularly monitored," he added.