How Safe Is Eating Out In The Sultanate?

12 Jan 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Rogue restaurants are hitting Oman’s hospitality sector hard. Despite efforts by the Municipality to combat the problem, hygiene standards of some catering establishments are a disgrace. Team Y reports on the health and safety breaches that are making unwitting diners sick while tainting the Sultanate’s reputation as a tourist destination.

The thought of getting more food than what you’ve ordered – for free – while dining at a restaurant is a delight like no other. But it’s best enjoyed when what’s on the plate is an extension of the menu and not anything else.

And especially not one of these three rogue items: Salmonella, E. Coli or Norovirus – one of which is responsible for 30 people who simultaneously fell ill – with some vomiting while others suffered acute abdominal pain – in Sohar after eating at a party last year.

Often – and rather sadly – that’s the trade-off some people have to settle for after a quick dine-and-dash at certain restaurants and cafeterias.

These unwelcome ingredients in your dish can’t be seen with the naked eye – but there’s a very good chance that you’ll feel the effects – and they result in food poisoning.

In fact, your one consolation – if you can call it that – would be knowing that nearly 1.5 million people around the world are experiencing what you’re going through, at any given point of a day.

It’s a matter of serious concern – and one proven once the statistics start rolling in. In fact, cases of food poisoning in the Sultanate are on the rise and the Municipality is working in overdrive to shut down eateries serving tainted food.

While the number of recorded cases in the Sultanate are low by international standards, the cases of restaurants violating the health and safety code is relatively high when compared with other countries in the GCC – thereby shedding light on the concern of under-reporting.

It is with a rather stark message that Dr. Khalfan al Araimi, an endocrinologist at a government hospital in Oman, meets us. He says: “Food poisoning can lead to death.”

“How many times have you fallen sick after eating a meal and gone on to simply take pain killers or not care about it,” he asks.

“That is the problem here in Oman: people don’t pay enough attention to food poisoning. You can be vomiting for hours and suffering from diarrhoea but still refuse medical attention.”

The doctor’s frustration is clear as he goes on to tell how ignorance and lack of education on the topic is leading to severe clinical complications, and in some cases, even death.

As it currently stands, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that a staggering 550 million healthy people fall sick due to food poisoning every year, and more worryingly, 230,000 healthy people die every year due to contaminated food.

“In countries such as the USA and UK, we find that there are strong measures taken on food safety – and it all begins with having strict rules to govern restaurants, and local-level eateries such as cafeterias and even food trucks.

“But, where it all makes a difference is in how it is implemented and how well-documented it all is. In fact, you can see how many people, on average, get food poisoning and how many lose their life.

“That’s what I am not seeing in Oman. While there are internal takes on the number of people dying due to acute food poisoning, there are no details published officially. Awareness must be created and that’s what leads to people taking adequate steps to protect themselves.

The doctor’s point is further highlighted by the fact Oman has no official record of number of food poisoning cases, or worse, figures of healthy individuals who have succumbed to the illness.

“I suppose that when one thinks about food poisoning they really don’t think about the extreme cases that can cause complications such as kidney failure and the likes that can lead to death.

Explaining how the human body responds to contaminated food, the doctor tells us: “The root cause of food poisoning is micro-organisms that can be present in the food that you eat. This can then travel down to your stomach and then, within a few hours, begin to attack your body.

“As a cautionary measure, your body will fight back. So, that’s when you begin to experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and severe abdominal pain or cramps.

“While most people can, and will, recover in the span of a few hours to a day, there are several cases that may require treatment. It’s true that not each case has to be treated equally, and it is up to the patient to really think it through; whether they need professional attention or not.

However, Dr. Khalfan maintains that, on any given day, he treats at least five to eight cases of patients suffering from food poisoning – but he believes that there are hundreds of mild to severe cases that go unreported daily due to a “level of negligence caused by ignorance on the topic”.

“There’s a general belief that as time goes on and as we progress forwards there are lesser chances of falling victim to food poisoning. But, in reality, the case is turning out to be the opposite: the number of victims are increasing exponentially as per the doctors forming the medical board as more restaurants gear up to serve more customers,” he adds.

It’s a fact that’s highlighted by some of the reports we obtain from one municipality agent during our research. The Omani official, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells us that a staggering 245 shops and restaurants were shut following raids across the country, and 1,321 cartons of food was destroyed in just one of the raids that occurred in the Sohar Port last year.

Despite this, not every restaurant breaching the health code is closed immediately.

The official, who has assisted in more than 1,200 inspections and raids, tells Y: “Mistakes happen and it is our duty to find out who is committing what mistake.

“It’s a case of breaking the trust between the restaurant and the customer; but thankfully, we’ve been on the tail of rogue restaurants so much so that we’ve been able to close down those who were repeatedly violating the code.

“In 2018, we conducted more than 20,000 inspections across Oman – and we were able to find and destroy nearly 8,000kg of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit that we deemed unfit for human consumption.

The selling of spoiled or contaminated food, or expired goods is a criminal offence in Oman – and violators can pay up to RO55,000 and face a maximum of 15 years in jail.

“It’s one of the strictest punishments one can be slapped with,” says the official, “But that hasn’t led to a complete eradication of violations.

“In fact, we try to hold at least two raids a day on shops or restaurants to see if they’re selling or making use of fresh products. This is a very tough process and time-consuming but we have several teams that are on the prowl for such activities.

“Sometimes, we even head to shops and eateries as undercover agents, pretending to be customers. That’s when they’re at their most vulnerable state as they’re sometimes left with no answer and caught red-handed.”

The municipality official then goes on to reveal a paper with the products that they usually target. It reads: “Milk and dairy, honey, eggs, fish, lobster, beef, chicken, ready-to-eat packet…”

It’s not just the expiry dates of goods that are noted. Restaurants are constantly under the radar, and officials make sure that the items in use comply with international food safety standards, and ideally, are certified by a regulatory body.

But, Dr. Susan Lima, a nutritionist from a private health and well-being club, Smart Eating, believes there should be more focus than just on “expired goods and old ingredients”.

She says: “For food to be completely fit for human consumption, it must also be handled in the most hygienic way possible.

“So, everyone from the chef to the waiters must be pro-active with their conduct. I’ve come across several cooks handling their food with their bare hands, and in some cases, also tasting a sliver of the dish from the palm of their hands and then continuing to cook.

“It’s incredibly unsanitary. You’re essentially spreading the germs from your saliva on to the food you’re making.

“I’ve also come across some restaurants re-using utensils for preparing different dishes at various times. This is also a matter of concern as cutlery kept in the open can harbour dangerous parasites that can cause immediate problems in your gut.”

Another violation that Susan claims she has come across is halwa makers using plastic buckets to prepare the hot halwa mix.

“Not only is this unhygienic, it’s also introducing carcinogens into our bodies. This can later form cancer as small melted portions of the plastics may be found in the halwa.”

Rather worryingly, in 2018, the Times of Oman newspaper reported that a panel from the Sultan Qaboos University – from their nationwide survey – found that 13 per cent of all food handlers did not wash their hands after using the toilet.

The report went on to state that 20 per cent smoked cigarettes between handling food, while 80 per cent had confessed to not receiving training on health and safety, and only 33 per cent of eateries had certification from Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).

While these are all facts that require immediate attention, the reality is that most of the eateries and shops go unnoticed until the matter is raised by members of the public.

The municipality official reveals: “Social media is the greatest tool of the 21st Century. Not only has it given the people a voice to speak with, it has also given them an opportunity to connect with us directly.

“Every day we have people sending us tips on places that violate the health code. The customers are mostly always right, and we have indeed clamped down on several violators – but one of our most satisfying achievements is how restaurant owners have now taken it personally to rectify mistakes in their establishments.

Crispin Jacob, the owner of Bread Basket in Oman, is among a handful of restauranteurs that keep an eye out for negative press in the media or online. He says: “We’re very particular about health and safety of our customers.

“Still, no restaurant on a budget can ever achieve 100 per cent safety – the closest we can do is to strive until we hit the closest mark.

“One of the ways we currently do this is by keeping a check on the online portals such as ‘Muscat Restaurant Review’ and ‘What’s Happening Oman’ to see whether there’s any negative news about us.

“And if there is, we will rectify it immediately. Even so, we proudly make use of fresh ingredients in our products and no lax will be tolerated.”

Crispin’s determination has given him a clean sheet online, but some harsh comments have been made against one western restaurant in Oman. Some cite poor service but others state that they’ve fallen sick after consuming their food.

Our efforts to reach out to the owners of the restaurant are initially met favourably, but their tone turns sour after we present them with the questions regarding the implementation of strict health and safety rules in the kitchen.

The implications of such “rogue restaurants”, however, don’t end with just food poisoning. In truth, some experts say that the lack of confidence in the country’s local-level food and beverage sector – the backbone of the nation’s food industry – can lead to a dip in tourism.

While statistics show that the tourism industry of the Sultanate is well and truly on top of its game, one municipality official – who wishes to remain anonymous – believes that the numbers will slowly begin reflecting poorly if the nation doesn’t perk up its levels of health and hygiene.

Our source from the municipality weighs in: “Tourism is a complete sphere that relies on every sector in the country to come together and become one unit. But, if it’s being let down here by the food, beverages, and consumables department, then we must accept that we have some serious issues to address.”

Lester (last name unknown), a British tourist who visited Oman, is one among the few that have vented their frustrations on the country’s health code in restaurants. In a Facebook post in 2015, he wrote: “As a first-time visitor to the Middle East, I can say that there’s no other [country] that can reflect the beauty and love of the land and its people like Oman.

“I spent a week there, and interacted with the locals in every way possible; even eating with them on several occasions.

“Everything was splendid until I headed back to my hotel. As weird as it sounds, I fell ill after dining at a restaurant in my five-star hotel in the capital. So much for first-class service.

“I was admitted to the Khoula Hospital after suffering from dehydration but am now safe.

He then goes on to warn fellow tourists: “Make sure you keep a tab on where you ate and what you ate, for that will come to be very important if you fall sick. Please report the list of restaurants to the authorities (as was told to me by the British Embassy) for a formal investigation by the municipality if you fall sick.

“It’s a rare occurrence, I suppose. But, it was one **** of an experience.”

After hearing about this experience, the municipality official is distressed, citing how much more must be done before such instances are eradicated.

“As an Omani, it hurts for me to see this happen. Our land is meant to be pure on all grounds and not a place where deceit and cheating takes place.”

The official states that his team has already cracked down on two violators (at the time of going to press) since the start of the year.

“Restaurants, cafes, eateries and groceries. These are our targets – they must be kept clean so that there exists a level of transparency between the customer and business. That’s an ideal transaction and that’s what we’ll promote.

“Everything else – the violators, the illegal goods importers bringing in fake food products and uncertified brands, and the unhygienic cooks – can stay where they belong: in the bin.”

How to prevent food poisoning at home

1) Wash your hands, utensils and food surfaces often.

Wash your hands well with warm, soapy water before and after handling or preparing food. Use hot, soapy water to wash utensils, cutting boards and other surfaces you use.

2) Keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods.

When shopping, preparing food or storing food, keep raw meat, poultry, fish and shellfish away from other foods. This prevents cross-contamination.

3) Cook foods to a safe temperature.

The best way to tell if foods are cooked to a safe temperature is to use a food thermometer. You can kill harmful organisms in most foods by cooking them at the right temperature.

4) Cook ground beef to 160 F (71.1 C).

Steaks, roasts and chops, such as lamb, pork and veal, to at least 145 F (62.8 C). Cook chicken and turkey to 165 F (73.9 C). Make sure fish and shellfish are cooked thoroughly.

5) Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods promptly

— within two hours of purchasing or preparing them. If the room temperature is above 90 F (32.2 C), refrigerate perishable foods within one hour.

6) Defrost food safely.

Don’t thaw food at room temperature. The safest way to thaw food is to defrost it in the refrigerator. If you microwave frozen food using the ‘defrost’ or ‘50 percent power’ setting, be sure to cook it immediately.

7) Throw it out when in doubt.

If you aren’t sure if a food item has been prepared, served or stored safely, discard it. Food left at room temperature too long may contain bacteria or toxins that can’t be destroyed by cooking. Don’t taste food that you’re unsure about — just throw it out. Even if it looks and smells fine, it may not be safe to eat.

When to see a doctor

If you experience any of the following signs or symptoms, seek medical attention:

1) Frequent episodes of vomiting and inability to keep liquids down

2) Bloody vomit or stools

3) Diarrhoea for more than three days

4) Extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping

5) An oral temperature higher than 100.4-degree Celsius

6) Signs or symptoms of dehydration — excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness

7) Neurological symptoms such as blurry vision, muscle weakness and tingling in the arms

Risk Factors

Whether or not you become ill after eating contaminated food depends on the organism, the amount of exposure, your age and your health. High-risk groups include:

Older adults. As you get older, your immune system may not respond as quickly and as effectively to infectious organisms as when you were younger.

Pregnant women.  During pregnancy, changes in metabolism and circulation may increase the risk of food poisoning. Your reaction may be more severe during pregnancy. Rarely, your baby may get sick, too.

Infants and young children.  Their immune systems haven’t fully developed.

People with chronic disease.  Having a chronic condition — such as diabetes or liver disease — or receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer reduces your immune response.

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