Sharjah cracks down on food safety

The municipality says it is not falling behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi but is moving slowly to avoid making 'horrible' mistakes.

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All Sharjah food outlets should be able to display a food safety certificate on their front doors by 2016.

So far, 1,200 food businesses have implemented Sharjah's food safety system, and officials hope all 7,000 will be certified within three years. Each outlet will have a municipality sticker on its door.

"We are moving slowly in Sharjah but we believe it is better to give attention to detail," said Basem M Azzam, a technical manager at the municipality's Sharjah Food Safety Programme.

"We work with 7,000 food businesses, so if we make a mistake for each, it's a horrible situation. We're taking our time to move step by step."

He was speaking on the sidelines of a food safety inspection conference at Gulfood, which took place in Dubai this week.

Started as a pilot project in 2011, the programme includes help for smaller food outlets, which make up most of the emirate's food businesses.

"We are focusing on small and/or less developed businesses because these are approximately 95 per cent of the food businesses," he said. "We provide them with free-of-charge technical support."

Inspectors will visit the small shops regularly. "We are sharing the responsibility of food safety between the Government, food businesses, training consultancies and certification bodies," said Mr Azzam.

The programme will focus on the "high-risk activities" most likely to cause food poisoning, including cooking, cooling, refrigerating and storing food. "They are the most important things."

Sharjah has had problems with food poisoning in the past. In June 2009, a four-year-old girl died of food poisoning after eating breakfast ordered from a restaurant near her home.

Although Mr Azzam said no food poisoning deaths were recorded last year, seven people were admitted to hospital last April after eating samosas from a bakery.

"People saying that Sharjah is lagging behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi are wrong," he said.

The team initially faced educational and linguistic challenges in training food handlers, and so introduced pictorial exams, as well as tests in Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi and Malayalam.

"We've cracked it now and found a way to teach people with no shared language," said Dave Shannon, the operations director at TSI Quality Services, the programme's consultants.

And it seems to be working. More than 1,200 food businesses in the emirate have implemented the system, and more than 2,500 managers have been trained.

"The impression people have had is that Sharjah is only starting to do something now but this isn't the case," said Mr Shannon.

"It's just been carefully designed to not rush and make mistakes."