Heat is on as food inspectors call

The Food Control Authority is ensuring that vendors meet health and hygiene rules and citing them when they do not, as a reporter sees first-hand.

ABU DHABI // It was in the frozen-foods aisle that Hasees Aripurat began to feel the heat. Flanked by other senior staff at Lulu Hypermarket in Khalidiyah Mall, Mr Aripurat, the general manager, watched anxiously as a municipal food inspector reached into a ruptured bag of ice, plucked out a cube and turned to the hypermarket's employees for answers.

"This one is open," noted the food inspector, Ali al Maamari, displaying the frozen lump. "This ice cannot be put with the other products," he explained later. "We must put this in a special refrigerator. This one is touching the ice cream and the ice is turning to water." The minor infraction resulted only in a warning from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, which conducts the routine inspections daily at markets throughout the capital.

But it put the staff at the hypermarket on high alert. Within minutes, stock boys were clearing the chiller and hauling the ice bags to a separate area to prevent cross-contamination. Another warning for the same breach would put the store at risk of a fine or even temporary closure. Mr Aripurat said the hypermarket had never before been informed about the ice problem, but he said he welcomed the inspectors, who have become a familiar presence, dropping in a few times a week.

"It's a good thing and we are following their rules," he said. "We act to correct these things immediately and so far we didn't get any warnings." For his part, Mr al Maamari may spend several hours at a time wandering the aisles with a hand-held electronic checklist. As one of the authority's roughly 120 food-department inspectors, he checks production and expiration labels, examines fresh produce and looks for hygiene problems and potential health hazards.

"Every visit, we must check fresh food, veggies, the fish and meat, and any expiration dates," he said. "Sometimes we take samples." On the surprise visit to Lulu yesterday, he spotted several crates of fresh eggs stacked against a wall. The eggs should be refrigerated, he said, opening a case and feeling the shells to check their temperatures. He ordered them to be moved to a cool space. No formal written warning this time, just an advisory: keep the eggs at temperatures between four and 10 degrees.

Although the hypermarket was well-organised and clean, it was not perfect. An errant bag of frozen vegetables lying atop several ice cream tubs had to be restocked, and flies buzzing around the pumpkin stand hinted at a deficiency with the produce section's insect zappers. Mr al Maamari issued his second warning to the hypermarket. "We will sort it out with pest control," a Lulu employee said. "We will look at our Insectocutor."

Mr al Maamari said he last toured the hypermarket three days earlier. He expected to follow up within the next two days. "He can stay here for one whole day from morning to afternoon," said Rashed al Yafei, the head of the retail-food inspections unit. "So we are here in all the shops, all the time to reduce the risks." The inspectors are divided into three units: a retail team monitoring hypermarkets, fish and vegetable markets; a catering squad to check on restaurants, bakeries and shisha cafes; and a section focusing on warehouses.

According to Basel al Jabri, the head of the food inspections department, repeat offenders can face fines ranging from around Dh500 (US$135) for non-serious infractions, up to Dh50,000 for high-risk violations, to be decided by the courts. Jail time is also a possibility for major infractions. "This [penalty] can be more or less, but the minor ones are for cleaning or problems with the trade licence," Mr al Jabri said.

"Major problems are like sewage coming up, or if the person is cheating with food expiration dates." Retailers are given two chances to comply with the warnings. Members of the media were invited yesterday to tour the vegetable market at Madinat Zayed with inspectors, who asked several shop attendants to produce their trade licences. Fahad Khamisaleh, the field inspector for the market, issued one hygiene warning to a shopkeeper whose floors and windows was grimy and whose produce overstocked.

"We have to make sure the walls, even the windows, there is maintenance. It should be very clean," Mr Khamisaleh said, adding that he also checks the ventilation system to ensure the food does not spoil in the heat. He estimated that at least 400 shoppers drop by the market in the mornings, with more customers in the summer. "This is the central market for many people, so we come almost every day," Mr Khamisaleh said. "It's for the people's safety."