Safety and food hygiene of Colombo eating houses quite poor, says CMC’s Chief Medical Officer
By Cheranka Mendis
Even though Colombo has over 750 eating houses (from five-star hotels to roadside ‘bath kades’), only 290 obtained trade licenses last year, CMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam said.
Speaking at the Indexpo food and management quality certificate ceremony held recently, Kariyawasam noted that the current situation of the country’s food safety and hygiene was not favourable.
With the increasing influx of tourism and marketing of the country as a key tourist destination, the importance of food quality is now more significant than ever. Kariyawasam stated that as a regulatory body, the CMC was now following strict guidelines and not cutting corners in issuing trade licenses for the eating houses.
“There is a lot of resistance to the program but we are adamant to continue the work. From leading five-star hotels to the tiny roadside eating joints, it is vital to get food safety and hygiene in order. However, even among the top hotels, this is not followed as expected.”
He said that during last year alone, the CMC has filed over 500 cases under the Food Act and taken some 400 eating houses to court for operating without trade license.
Grading eating houses
The CMC has also undertaken the task of grading eating houses under Grades A, B and C. This he said was no easy task as the regulators must check normal hygiene levels, food and water samples and hotel workers’ medical standards, amongst others factors.
“Even popular five-star hotels had to be rated Grade B due to low standards,” he noted.
The expectation is to award at least 150 hotels as Grade A within the next two weeks.
Kariyawasam stated that so far this year 59 eating houses have been given ‘Grade A’ status while 85 were given ‘Grade B’. “The situation needs to be improved on a much larger scale than the present,” he added.
The institute has also conducted medical examinations on food handlers and tested samples of food and water at the eating houses. However, out of 10,000 food handlers, only 2,500 were examined last year.
“A large number of tests have to be done in this regard. We investigated as to whether the food handlers had diabetics and hypertension, etc. A lot of laboratory tests were carried out and this is an expensive area to cover.”
Moreover, 9,780 food handlers were vaccinated with the typhoid vaccine as 70% of communicable food-borne diseases of last year were from typhoid.
Commenting on the low quality of food standards in Colombo, he said: “We took seven food samples from main hotels in Colombo, of which five had microbes in them. We have also noted that half-cooked food is served to their guests at most times.”
Eating houses and especially hotels must check on food hygiene from step one onwards – from farm to table. He noted that the CMC had received news on hotels ordering food in bulk from other countries when the items are near expiration so that the expenses on certain items are far less.
“We get containers full of such items. It is safe to say that Sri Lanka gets second or third class stuff for our kitchens.”
Storing a key issue
He also noted that storing is a key issue in the city. Whether it is the supplier warehouses, supermarkets, cool rooms or refrigerators, which are storing spaces that need energy, the energy is usually switched off from time to time to cut down electricity costs. With the recent increase in electricity with the fuel adjustment formula coming into play, the situation is likely to get much worse before getting better.
“Out of ice cream samples we took from leading hotels, 60% were spoilt. One of the key reasons is that they switch off the refrigerators at night. We found a lot of mould in them. The leading hotels must be aware of such situations and take steps to prevent such unhygienic conditions.”
Kariyawasam noted that by 31 March all hotels must get their trade licenses in order. “If not we will have to monitor them for a period of six to eight months after and then consider it.”
He also admitted that a lot of spices come with food dye and unauthorised food colouring. While checking a leading spice company that supplies spices to most hotels and other leading eating houses in Colombo, it was noted that most spices had germs in them.
Focus on vendors
CMC is not only interested in the leading hotels, Kariyawasam acknowledged. They worked to register the vendors at the Galle Face green last month free of charge.
“We did free medical checkups and registered them free of charge. We also gave them caps, t-shirts and aprons. They complained that most of their customers were local and that tourists were hesitant to consume their foods. We educated them on food quality and the unhealthy food colourings they use. This was to an extent a successful project and we hope to replicate this in other areas in Colombo and then in other cities as well.”
He noted that another project was carried out with lunch packet sellers around the city as well. Collecting food packets at 2 p.m. it was noted that 80% was spoilt. “There was bacterial spoilage when we checked it in the lab. Sometimes consumers do not taste the difference.”
After the checking, 500 of the lunch packet sellers were trained and 300 were registered. A registration card was issued to these sellers under the Food Act. Their kitchens, storage and preparation methods were checked and will be monitored for a period of time.
On kottu rotti makers, he noted that there was a plan to train them on basic food hygiene with kottu specialists. A model kottu plate will be introduced soon instead of the lead plate that is used currently. The kottu rotti makers’ training is sponsored by a private sector company and certificates will be issued to those who successfully complete the session. “Let us hope we will soon have ‘food poisoning free’ kottu to eat,” Kariyawasam added.
He noted that while the food safety and hygiene rules have been listed for years, it was now high time to follow regulations. With culinary tourism listed as one area of tourism development in the country, adhering to proper standards and practices will help the country reach their targets and goals without any ill or side effects.
Recognising the best
At the award presentation, companies were recognised under Crowns and Management System, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), ISO 22,000 Food Safety Management System and ISO 9001 Quality Management System.
The award certification was organised by Indexpo Certification Ltd., a non profit body established under Ceylon National Chamber of Industries and National Chamber of Exporter with the assistance provided by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) under its Integrated Industrial Development support program.
The program has been funded by the Royal Norwegian Government through NORAD to conduct conformity assessments and grant certification to Sri Lankan Industries in compliance with national and international standards demanded by consumers.
In this regard, initially the company introduced a food safety inspection and grading system to enhance the safety of food produced by hotels and catering services which is called the ‘Crowns for Food Hygiene’ program.
The program has been developed on par with similar programs in operation in developed countries and the first implementation was in the Colombo Municipal Council area with the support of the CMC’s Health Department. This will be introduced to other municipal council areas around Colombo and to tourist hotels and restaurants in the country with the support of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.
Pix by Indrarathne Balasuriya