Firms fear high cost of safer food

Legislation governing food safety is necessary to build a confident society, say officials, but industry tells them it will prove very expensive.

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ABU DHABI // Food companies yesterday complained that proposed legislation aimed at tightening hygiene standards and improving food safety in the emirate would cost them too much. The capital's food regulator, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), invited food industry representatives to a session at which they were allowed to raise objections to the draft law.

The companies cited "unnecessary" medical checks for staff and said the penalties for breaking the rules were too severe. They also said the proposals were vague. "Everybody wants to implement hygiene and food safety, but it's very expensive", said Dr Sven Mostegl, the manager of a food and catering consultancy. One article of the law requires that staff handling food who show symptoms of illness must be looked at twice by a doctor - once when they exhibit the symptoms and again before they return to work.

"As a business, we now need to pay twice for a common cold," said a representative of a food distribution company. "When you have 6,000 staff, it becomes very expensive." The ADFCA said it would look into making a list of specific illnesses that would mandate the two medical checks. It wanted to be careful not to make the rules too costly because 85 per cent of food establishments in the capital were small businesses.

"They're not just talking to the major chains and operators and factories, but they're also concerned with the small cafes. This is why it's very difficult to get legislation across the board," said Stephen Pakenham-Walsh, a food consultant. For this reason, the ADFCA revised its period of grace for restaurants to adopt the new law from one month to six months. The law is expected to be passed soon.

The representatives also said the penalties for companies who committed serious violations were too harsh. "Prison is too hard. Food poisoning is not deliberate, it's a lack of experience," said Jacob John, the food and beverage manager at the Oryx Hotel. The industry also complained about the lack of federal regulations, which Mariam al Yousuf, the executive director of the policy and regulations sector at the ADFCA, acknowledged was a problem.

However, Dr al Yousuf also noted that food hygiene was critical for people's security. The aim of the food safety law was "to continue to create a confident, secure society and build a sustainable, open and globally competitive economy", she said. The law should "elevate the quality of life" while balancing consumer protection and encouragement of trade, she said. The draft law details hygiene and safety requirements at all stages of food production and preparation.

It includes manufacturing, distribution, handling and sale of food, and is based on best practices in other countries. It creates a legal framework that would allow the ADFCA to impose penalties including fines and closures, as well as prison sentences. Dr al Yousuf said there were no plans to revise the penalty structure. The law would require hygiene training and medical tests for food handlers, guidelines for food preparation areas and various foods to be kept at certain temperatures.