Recipe for disaster


Huma Bukhari August 02, 2010

KARACHI: The tandoor is located right next to the bathroom. Clothes and dusters hang over the bathroom door and something is leaking from them straight into a can of ghee.

Every time you go to and from the toilet, you have to jump over trays of buns lying on the floor draped with less-than-clean looking, dirt-grey cloths.

For deputy district officer health Dr Abdul Razzaq, this bakery in Karachi clearly  falls in the category of ‘totally unhygienic’. And it is just one of scores of them located across the city, the cornerstore bakeries found on every block. They sell everything from bread to biscuits, pound cakes to buns, rusks to nimco.

The food inspector accompanying the DDO found other alarming signs of health hazards. He gestures to the eggs, claiming they are expired, which he can tell from the foul smell emanating from them.

According to the inspector, bakeries often use these eggs since they are available at very low rates. The eggs are then mixed with other ingredients and the final, baked products are able to conceal the smell. “But the germs remain,” the inspector said.

According to these officials, it is not just the smell that is disguised.

The same cakes, breads and buns that are covered with dirty cloths and baked with sewage-mixed ghee are then packed up and sold in clean, airy shops.

The back room of this particular bakery has a similar, attractive front. It has light streaming in and fans to stir in some fresh air. When the bakery owner was asked why the same clean environment was not replicated in the preparation room, he said, “All the goods are fresh so what’s the problem?”

He insisted the place was cleaned daily and was oblivious to evidence that proved otherwise, such as the spider webs dangling over a tub of butter. The presence of the DDO and the food inspector did not seem to make him think otherwise. In fact, he screamed angrily that he was being publicly humiliated.

Then he told the DDO to come again after the place was “painted and repaired”. When the team did come back it noted that some attempts to clean up had been made. The foul eggs had been discarded, the trays relocated. The bathroom, of course, was still there.

“What’s wrong with the bathroom?” the owner asked stubbornly. “It’s normal for the workers!”

Bakeries across the cities are just as lax about health and safety regulations. Clean uniforms, gloves and other rules are scarcely ever implemented. “Hepatitis spreads from exactly this kind of contact,” Dr Abdul Razzaq pointed out.

According to the law, bakery managers have to get their workers vaccinated every year but few owners are even aware of this rule.

Moreover, according to Dr Abdul Jabbar Sheikh, these rules are very difficult to implement. “Most owners will hire anyone as long as they work, they never look into medical records [of people they hire],” he said, adding that many of the workers just stay for a few days so it gets increasingly difficult to keep track of them and their health records.

The vice president of the Bakeries Association, Haji Mohammed Sadiq, is quite laidback about these health problems.

“I use bakery products in my own home and Allah ka shukar hai that nothing has ever happened to me,” he said. The vice president was unaware of the mandatory vaccination law.

When asked whether his association was taking any steps to implement it, he replied, “Well now that you’ve mentioned it, we will try to take steps.”

(with additional writing by meiryum ali)

Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2010.

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