Muscat: Some rogue restaurants in Oman are putting health at risk by spreading bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella, a new study has found.
As part of the study, researchers at Sultan Qaboos University surveyed restaurants and swabbed the hands of waiters and the surfaces where food was prepared.
“Food safety is essential for human health. There are several factors that may spoil food, such as pathogenic bacteria salmonella and staphylococcus, lack of public and personal hygiene, and poor handling, which must be monitored in restaurants to ensure the safety of the consumer,” said Dr. Maryam Al Ghazali, Master of Food Science and Nutrition, Sultan Qaboos University.
The researcher said the results of the study were shocking.
The hand swabs revealed the presence of bacteria that could cause disease and food poisoning.
Researchers found that some 13 per cent of food handlers did not wash their hands after using the toilet.
Almost 20 per cent smoked while handling food. Almost 80 per cent of the handlers had received no formal training in hygiene, and only 33 per cent of eateries visited had a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certificate.
The research split restaurants into three categories: first-class, second-class and third-class, which were selected based on the number of complaints received by the municipality.
From 18 restaurants (six of each category) in Muscat Governorate, researchers took 162 swabs, 54 each from knives and other cutlery, cutting boards, and the hands of employees.
“A questionnaire was designed to assess the knowledge of food handlers in food safety and public health practices in restaurants. The focus was on six main criteria: hygiene, food poisoning, food handling, cooking, knowledge of municipal rules and training,” Al Ghazali said.
The questionnaire showed that 87 per cent of food handlers always washed their hands after leaving the toilet, while the percentage should be 100 per cent, according to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some of the restaurants were found to have higher-than-safe levels of microbes in cutlery.
WHO states that Enterobacteriaceae — the pathogenic bacteria, which causes food poisoning — should not be recorded at any level higher than the global safe standard, between 0-1 colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria in samples.
In some restaurants, there was an Enterobacteriaceae microbic presence on chopping boards exceed 2.1 in swabs, double the WHO recommended safe level. Knives recorded levels of Enterobacteriaceae at 1.9.
And the total bacteria count on workers’ hand's swab tests revealed counts of 2.3, with some registering a count of 3. The global safety standard is 2 log cfu/cm2.
Muscat Municipality regularly conducts raids and closes eateries down on an almost daily basis, but some rogue operators are still flouting the rules and putting public health at risk.
The number of reports that the Public Authority for Consumer Protection received against restaurants and cafes in Muscat Governorate was 61 in 2015, which rose to 121 in 2016.
“The prevalence of food poisoning has increased significantly in Oman in recent years. The number of complaints by consumers of unhealthy practices has risen significantly and causes alarm,” Al Ghazali said.
Mashaal Al Sawafi, Food Safety Manager at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, shared with the Times of Oman some of the practices followed by the authorities. “The authorities announce surprise inspections to check all the stores we have. They do an expiry check, and there are clearances they issue. All our items should be clean, and should not have any dust or foreign objects on them,” she said.
Al Sawafi added, “They check the fridges and chillers. Everything should be covered and properly labelled. The kitchens must be clean, and any kind of cross-contamination is not allowed. Raw food must be kept separate from the ready-to-eat food. All the chefs’ grooming is checked. They should be shaven, and their hair must be very short. They need to wear either the hair nets or the chef’s hat.”
“If the standards are not met, the food may become contaminated. It is extremely likely that biological contamination will occur, and we cannot notice this on the surface, so we have to follow the practices. If small things are out of place, or if this is a first-time mistake, they will issue a warning or give us instructions. This is for small things, but if they find that something is expired, they will impose a fine,” Al Sawafi said.
“In some cases, if only one person gets food poisoning, we don’t consider this because it is an isolated case, but we still conduct our investigation,” added Al Sawafi.
“If you eat now, you will only get food poisoning tomorrow, but if we have, say, 10 cases, then we will need to carry out a thorough investigation.” Residents in Oman were also cautious about eating from restaurants that did not appear to be clean.
“My son and his friends like eating from all these fast-food joints and they don’t give much thought to the cleanliness inside,” said an Omani. “Often, you will see them outside these small coffee-shops and they will order lots of unhealthy food. One day, they will fall sick and then they will regret this. It is about time this sort of attention was focused on the poor practices being followed.”
Another mother of two school-going children said, “I give my children a packed box of food everyday, but there is only so much we can do to instruct them. They are outside the house for so long and we cannot be after them all the time. Hopefully, stories like this will show them just how careful they need to be.”