Children's deaths compelled Dubai to bolster food safety

The deaths of three young children from suspected food poisoning last year resulted in an overhaul of safety regulations and inspections of restaurants and cafes in the emirate.

DUBAI // The deaths of three young children from suspected food poisoning last year resulted in an overhaul of safety regulations and inspections of restaurants and cafes in the emirate, senior municipality officials admitted yesterday. At a media briefing to announce the Dubai International Food Safety Conference, an annual conference that starts next month, officials from the public health department spoke out about new methods that have been introduced since the deaths of Nathan and Chelsea D'Souza, and Rishab Pranav.

Nathan and Chelsea, aged five and seven, died in Dubai in June after becoming ill following a takeaway meal from a Chinese restaurant. Food poisoning was also suspected to be responsible for the death of two-year-old Rishab in July. Khalid Mohammed Sharif, director of the food control department, said that new methods and protocol had been put in place after the food poisoning incidents. "We are not saying that our system was great," he said. "That is why these food poisoning cases changed our programme and our food inspection systems."

Mr Sharif said that since the deaths, food inspection techniques had been modified, self regulation encouraged through training of cafe and restaurant managers, and awareness campaigns for businesses and the general public carried out in malls and other public places. He said a team from the internationally accredited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US would also be brought in to train local food control officers.

"We have invited CDC to the Middle East for the first time, apart from participating in the conference that would also train our inspectors and help ensure that a good surveillance system is in place," said Mr Sharif. He defended his department's investigations into the deaths of Nathan and Chelsea, which found no evidence to show that the food served by the Lotus Garden restaurant in Al Qusais was contaminated. The restaurant, which the municipality had closed as a precaution, was allowed to reopen later last year.

"This case is now being handled by Dubai police. We gave them our test results and samples. They took samples to German laboratories and the result was the same as what we had declared," he said. "There is no evidence that contamination came from this restaurant food but we had to improve our systems." More than six months on, the children's parents, Patrick D'Souza and his wife Anne-Sophie, are still waiting for clear answers. The authorities have yet to release a statement about what caused their deaths, and no one has been prosecuted.

The officials said yesterday that the restaurant was used as a case study to apply food safety systems all across the emirate. Salem Mesmar, assistant director general for environment, public health and safety at Dubai Municipality, said on the sidelines of yesterday's briefing that the deaths of the children had taken an emotional toll on food control officers. "That [D'Souza] case particularly, put a lot of pressure on the officials from the food control department. To them, it was an incident that changed food safety inspection in the emirate."

He said that more than 100 civic officials work around the clock to ensure that food safety standards are maintained. More than 43 nations are expected to participate in the food safety conference where leading food safety experts from around the world will talk about best practices in the industry. The emirate receives food from more than 200 countries, all of which is monitored and tested by the municipality.