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August 10,2015

Cheering for the Punjab Food Authority

Adiah Afraz
Who would have thought that something as unromantic as a government department with a name as unexciting as the Punjab Food Authority would overnight become the new hot sensation for the hero-worship starved people of Pakistan.
But ever since Ayesha Mumtaz, director operations Punjab Food Authority (PFA), started conducting raids on the eateries of Lahore, this is precisely what has happened. As images of rotten vegetables, unhygienic kitchens and filthy storage spaces appear on media, accompanied by official PFA statements declaring war on contaminated food, Lahore suddenly wakes up to the arrival of a new messiah – and the most exciting thing is that this time the messiah is a woman.
Ayesha Mumtaz, has become an overnight hit for Lahoris as her name is now being used by all and sundry to instil the fear of God in the hearts of all those who cook, bake, steam, braise or broil for profit. Be it restaurant owners, waiters, managers, or staff at public eateries, all you have to do is threaten them with ‘a call to the food department’ and the reward is instantaneous.
So let’s celebrate this while it lasts, because when was the last time anyone was ever scared of anything pertaining to a government department and the process of accountability? The complaint could be as big as a case of food poisoning inflicted on a family of 39, and as small as a tiny bug smeared on top of a sealed water bottle. All one has to do is talk to the managers and explain to them one’s newly found rights as a food consumer in the province of Punjab. And one of those rights is the right to make a call to the PFA hotline. Not only would one get an unconditional apology and a scurrying line of managers waiting to note down one’s concerns, but there would be complimentary follow-up options and promises of instant rectification.
And why not?
According to official figures, so far 5,500 eating places have been raided by the Punjab Food Authority at its own initiative, out of which 250 have been sealed and 2,500 have been served notices. This is definitely bad for the businesses, their reputation built over years, and future prospects in an extremely competitive industry. The heartening part is that places sealed or fined are not restricted to small-time food joints but include big giants of fast food, five-star hotels, some very popular restaurants and quite a few posh eateries. The geographical distribution of these raids is also widespread and not restricted to any one area. What this says about our food standards is another debate, but this space is dedicated to the good work done by Ms Mumtaz and her team.
I consider it very important to highlight this wonderful work by Ayesha Mumtaz not only because of the gender-based affinity I feel with her and the consequent recognition of the challenges of her job, but also because this work is very significant for the preservation of Lahore’s cultural identity. Lahoris have an inseparable connection with food and hospitality. Eating out not only serves as a means of entertainment but is largely part of the city’s ethos. Protecting our eateries as cultural places is part of preserving our communal identity. In this context the fight against contaminated food is a very significant movement and this movement shouldn’t stop here. We need to give credit where credit is due and do it with an open heart.
According to official statements CM Punjab has already taken personal interest in furthering the cause of food safety by calling for standard operating procedures to grade eating places according to food safety indicators. Though this is definitely good news, yet I would urge the CM, the DO and the PFA to take this war to a new level and start inspecting the eating places of educational institutions as well. As the summer vacations come to an end and schools and colleges resume classes, the risk of disease through contaminated food trebles, especially for schoolgoing children.
As somebody who has experience working with both government and private schools I can point out that food contractors – especially in private schools – have no standard operating or accountability procedures. School-owners give canteen contracts on the basis of profitability and not quality. There is absolutely no check on the quality of food and no accountability in case of an unfortunate incident.
As school children queue up to spend their pocket money at the school canteens, checking the expiry date on the items being sold is not one of their priorities. I am very sure that even if someone does check for an expiry date, the chances of that date being there are very slim. Moreover, often there are hardly any hygiene standards in place for the preparation of food, no check on the freshness and quality of ingredients, and often no regulation of the pricing of the food items.
The staff handling the food for children follows no hygiene protocol. For instance there is no prohibition on an ill person from handling food items for children. Hand washing is a neglected area and often staff serving food to children is seen in dirty apparel, with uncovered hair, and unkempt personal hygiene. There are no supervisors looking after the SOPs for the staff and no cleanliness checks.
Raids on school canteens can go a long way in ensuring that our children stay healthy and free of disease, and can prove a logical step to further the food reform movement. Moreover, I urge the government of Punjab to provide maximum patronage, security and autonomy to the PFA so that this work continues. The PFA has taken on the big guns and chances are that it will bear the backlash in one way or the other. It is the job of the government to provide a safe passage to the department to perform its duties.
And on that note, as clichéd as it gets, let me say it just once: three cheers for PFA. Long live the Punjab Food Authority. May all your food be SOP regulated and may all your contaminations come untrue.
The writer is an MSc candidate at the University of Oxford.
Email: adiahafrazgmail.com

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