Saturday, 25 April 2015

Eat safe!

The recent news about food safety in stores in Kasane has focused everyone’s attention on this critical issue. Inspectors from the police, local authorities and the consumer protection unit raided a number of stores, seizing goods that had expired or that weren’t of adequate quality and damning the stores for their poor hygiene.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect to this story (yes, there is one) is the reaction we’ve heard from some of the stores. “We weren’t told this was going to happen!” they said, complaining that they hadn’t been given advance warning of the inspections, presumably so they could do their own checks beforehand and fix, cover-up or dispose of their offences.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? These inspections are MEANT to be unannounced. They’re meant to be a surprise. They’re meant to check what the rest of us will see when we visit the stores. Do you ever call a store to warn them that you’re coming over to buy stuff and can they please clean and tidy the store beforehand? No, of course you don’t and neither should the inspectors. Their job is to inspect reality, not to inspect a cover-up.

What probably frightened the stores in Kasane was that it wasn’t just a single inspector who turned up with a clipboard. This was a major, multi-agency exercise.

What they found should concern us all. According to the Daily News the inspectors found “cockroaches, rats and cats” in various kitchens and storerooms. In one store “cockroaches were found in their restaurant and employees were found handling food without medical certificates and personal protective clothing.” They also apparently found a wide range of goods that had expired or that weren’t of good enough quality to be sold.

The bad news is that Kasane isn’t a special case. What the inspectors saw in those stores was typical of what you see in stores, or more importantly, what you DON’T see in stores. If you go behind the scenes in some stores and restaurants you’ll often see some shocking sights.

A restaurant owner I know, who is very proud of his hygiene standards and who will always allow any customer to take a look around his kitchen if they ask, tells shocking stories of what he can see in the kitchen of the restaurant next door. He once told me that he wouldn’t allow his worst enemy to eat next door, based on what he’s witnessed.

A few years ago we heard from a newspaper reporter who had uncovered the source of some of the meat being sold by some of the food vendors at a bus rank. He met a guy who would sneak into the back of certain supermarkets at night and would steal the expired or sub-standard meat that had been discarded and thrown in the bins. After he’d wiped it clean he would sell it to the vendors the following day, who would then cook it, no doubt covering it in some spicy sauce to cover up the taste of rotten meat.

In 2013 we were alerted to a pharmacy in Gaborone that was selling baby formula that was going to expire a week later. Worse, they were selling them on a two-for-one special offer. Each box would last for about a month so the first would expire shortly after opening and the second would have expired weeks before it was opened. Note that this wasn’t a can of baked beans or a bottle of water being sold a few days after its expiry date. This was baby formula. There are no items for sale that are more important.

Although the manufacturer took immediate action the pharmacy was slower to react, claiming that they needed authorisation from their head office to remove anything from their shelves. That was until the Ministry of Health stepped in and demanded action, reminding the pharmacy that the regulations in Botswana require that when baby formula is sold there must be at least three months left before it expires. Profuse apologies from the pharmacy chain soon followed and the problem doesn’t seem to have occurred again. Clearly the pharmacy didn’t want an angry Ministry of Health making their life difficult for them.

Note the amount of ice in the package.
Has this been defrosted and frozen again?
More recently we’ve done some of our own research in stores in Gaborone. We were looking for goods that either had expired or clearly weren’t fit to be sold.

It was the easiest research we’ve ever done.

We found frozen shrimps that had clearly defrosted and been refrozen and which had no packing of sell-by dates on them at all. We found frozen pork trotters that were being sold twelve days after their expiry date. We found fresh pork chops that were four days after they should have been thrown away. We found frozen chicken joints in a bag that also had no dates on it at all. In that situation how can you or the store possibly know how old they are? They might have been there for three days, three months or three years. Who knows?

Worst of all we found frozen mussel meat that was fifteen months beyond its expiry date. That’s the sort of thing that could kill someone.

Picture taken on 16th April 2015.
Note the Best Before date.
Luckily for consumers all of this is illegal. The Labelling of Prepackaged Foods Regulations are very clear about the facts and dates that MUST be on anything sold to us that we can’t inspect with our eyes, fingers and noses. There is no excuse for not labeling things properly and there is no excuse for selling us expired goods. None at all. More importantly there’s no excuse for ignoring the Food Control Act.

I think we should be celebrating the various enforcement agencies that raided the stores in Kasane. Can’t they do the same everywhere else as well? Stores might hate it but consumers would love it.

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