A research study published in 2019 investigated cleanliness practices, amenities and food handling behaviour in restaurants and street food vendors of Bangladesh. During their spot checks, only 33 per cent restaurants were found to have soap and water at locations accessible for their staff and for street food-vending stalls only 11 per cent had soap and water when observed. During observations, cooks were found to use soap to wash hands on 3 per cent of instances before food preparation, 8 per cent of instances after cutting fish, meat or vegetables, 4 per cent before serving food, and 0 per cent before hand-mashing food or salad preparation. No street food vendors washed hands with soap during food-handling. More disturbingly, the study team reported that most of the restaurant staff and street food vendors felt that consumers chose a vendor based on tastiness of the food.
So, is it the good taste of the food that only matters?
There is a great need to develop food safety inspection and protection systems for hotels and restaurants in Bangladesh, particularly for smaller and informal businesses. Before that, to protect the health and rights of consumers, epidemiological studies to understand the cause, nature and severity of food-borne illnesses should be undertaken. Once developed and in place, data from inspections and protection systems would help identify high risk facilities -- whether particular types, location and size of restaurants are creating and possessing higher risk and looking at time trends of the risk would also help in evaluating interventions, practice, policies or laws formulated and put forward by the government together with other stakeholders. Food, health, sanitary and hygiene inspectors need to be well-trained about the whole process of food preparation so that in their inspections, they realise the categories and nature of hazards present at these facilities. They should be particularly aware of and attentive to the informal sector or small businesses which may be at a disadvantage due to their limited understanding of hazards and resource constraints.
In a recent research study led by this author, data were compiled and summarised from the city's inspection reports to identify the common violations in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants in New York City-- a city famous for exquisite cuisines where millions of South Asians live. Following is an inventory of most common critical violations that were found in restaurants there. These may provide much valuable suggestions and critical inputs for the food safety officials in Dhaka to know what and where to look for violations and finding ways on addressing some of these.
ANIMALS AND INSECTS
- Live cockroaches present in the facility's food and/or and non-food areas.
- Filth flies or food/refuse/sewage-associated flies present in a facility's food and/or non-food areas. Filth flies include house flies, little house flies, blow flies, bottle flies and flesh flies. Food/refuse/sewage associated flies include fruit flies, drain flies and Phorid flies.
- Evidence of mice or live mice present in the facility's food and/or non-food areas.
- FOOD PROCESSING
- Hot food item not held at or above 60°C. Cold food item held above 5°C (smoked fish and reduced oxygen packaged foods above 3.3°C) except during necessary preparation.
- Sanitised equipment or utensil, including in-use food dispensing utensil, improperly used or stored
- No facilities available to wash, rinse and sanitise utensils and/or equipment.
- Wiping clothes soiled or not stored in sanitising solutions.
- Food not protected from potential source of contamination during storage, preparation, transportation, display or service.
- Raw, cooked or prepared food is adulterated, contaminated, cross-contaminated, or not discarded.
- Food contact surface not properly washed, rinsed and sanitised after each use and following any activity when contamination may have occurred.
- EMPLOYEE CLEANLINESS OR BEHAVIOUR
- Food workers do not use proper utensils to reduce bare hand contact with food that will not obtain sufficient additional heat treatment.
- Hand washing facility not provided in or near the food preparation area and toilet room. Hot and cold running water at suitable pressure to enable cleanliness of employees not provided at the facility. Soap and an acceptable hand-drying device not provided.
- Personal cleanliness inadequate. Outer garment soiled with possible contaminants. Effective hair restraint not worn in an area where food is prepared.
- Tobacco use, eating, or drinking from open containers in food preparation, food storage or dishwashing area observed.
- Food Protection Certificate not held by supervisor of food operations.
- Learning more about the restaurant inspection method, criteria setting, and grading mechanism from other large cities may provide Dhaka officials insight as similar efforts have been planned by the government through Bangladesh Food Safety Authority. There will be better understanding and appreciation of the grading system by all particularly the consumers once it is effectively implemented, and there should be continuous effort to improve the accuracy, consistency, and validity of this system. These inspections should cover all hotels and restaurants in the country that sell prepared, pre-packaged, and cooked foods to monitor their compliance with food safety regulations.
- The existing cadre of food inspectors can be trained on what to look for while certifying these restaurants once a detailed inspection scheme is developed. They can follow these steps for now:
- Inspectors should observe how food is prepared, served, and stored
- Whether restaurant workers are practising good hygiene.
- They will check food temperatures, equipment maintenance and pest control measures.
- Customers must also be provided with a complaint mechanism about any restaurant through a phone number or online site like other cities have. They can report their complaints with the name and address of the restaurant/s. Such complaints can be about:
- Suspected food poisoning from eating at a restaurant
- Presence of rodents, flies, or cockroaches in a restaurant
- Inadequate food safety practices or poor hygiene among the staff
There are occasional food inspections in Dhaka, but these look unplanned, uncoordinated, amateurish, random and do not seem to be effective and useful, as yet. But these do bring some hopes; more teeth and claws are needed for the designated authority to be effective.
Hasnat M. Alamgir, Professor, Department of Pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.