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Eating out: The fault in our food

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Eating out: The fault in our food


By Ferya Ilyas / PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO / Creative: Aamir Khan
Published: July 5, 2015

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In Pakistan, gastronomic indulgence comes with a hidden cost. Seventy per cent of
the food available in the market is adulterated and 52% of mineral water available is
unsafe for drinking, says Muddassar Alam Tahirkheli, manager governance at
Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan, sharing what an insider revealed at one of
the cabinet meetings. Though sale of contaminated food or beverages is an offense in
Pakistan under consumer laws, Tahirkheli says most food producers continue to use
substandard raw materials such as contaminated water and inferior food colours,
flavours, fats and oils because there is weak implementation of laws and a virtually
non-existent integrated legal framework for food safety.

The contamination, however, is not just limited to the ingredients. In most cases,
persons preparing the food are not wearing gloves and hairnets, and the food is
prepared in dirty kitchens infested with cockroaches. Often the food is spoiled not
because of substandard ingredients, but by an unhygienic handler who is sweating
profusely in a poorly ventilated kitchen while adding chillies to the gravy, says
Karachis chief food inspector Abdul Waheed Bhatti, who heads a platoon of 13 food
examiners instead of what should ideally be a battalion of 2,000 inspectors.

Appalling conditions of food storage are a common sight in the country. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Bhatti, along with a handful of comrades, travels around the sprawling mega city,
snooping around kitchens for a rusty utensil or expired frozen meat. In a perfect world,
we would expect Bhatti to seal a restaurant if he spots a health code violation, but
unfortunately that is not the case. Food inspectors in Karachi are working under a
decades-old legislation, the Pure Food Ordinance 1960, which limits their role to just
filing complaints with local magistrates. We take samples of the food and if it fails the
laboratory test, we file a detailed report which is forwarded to the relevant
magistrate, Bhatti explains, adding as a consequence restaurant owners are merely
fined somewhere between Rs500 and Rs3,000 for offences that could be potentially
fatal, as was seen in the case of the case of 13-year-old Kanza Ahmed. The teenager
passed away earlier this year after consuming a burger from Dilpasand in Karachi
declared unfit for human consumption in a test conducted four days after her death.
Many raised questions about whether the food was perfectly stored before it hit the
lab, but the fact remains that Kanza and her family went through an episode of
stomach ache and vomiting right after consuming the meal.

Although far from ideal, the situation in Lahore is relatively better. The Punjab Food
Authority (PFA) responsible for the availability of safe and wholesome food fit for
human consumption in its annual report for 2013-14, boasts visiting 19,040 food
outlets and collecting 17,649 samples against Karachis estimated 8,000 samples. It
has issued notices to big names, while sealing 598 hotels, restaurants and bakeries.
We have a comprehensive law which covers several aspects of food safety. With
4,000 registered restaurants, action is taken against anyone found violating the food
safety code, PFAs Deputy Director Operations Saqib Munir says as he begins to
explain the organogram in place for inspection. The PFA has nine teams for every town
in Lahore, each team comprising three members. During our checks, we detected
major problems with washing and storage, he adds, explaining food handlers at most
places did not have any soap to wash their hands with before and after preparing food.

Most of the time food sold at roadside stalls is not safe for consumption. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

The number of inspectors in Lahore is not much higher either but PFA units in the city
have more power and authority than their counterparts in other cities. Although not
entirely impressed, Karachis Bhatti agrees that PFAs governing law has teeth. PFA is
only limited to Lahore since it was established in 2011 but their work is good as they
can impose hefty fines and seal outlets, says Bhatti. Praising PFA, Masood Sadiq Butt,
director general of National Institute of Food Science and Technology at Faisalabads
University of Agriculture, adds, Its time such food safety structures are set up across
Pakistan. While emphasising the importance of inspection exercises to ensure food
standards, he says, In Pakistan, people only follow rules out of fear. Restaurant
owners must know that they will be held responsible if something goes wrong.

The local laws and World Health Organization (WHO) standards state that to provide
safe food, a restaurant must ensure five things: the food handler and cooking area is
clean, water and raw materials used are safe, raw and cooked foods are stored
separately, food (particularly meat and poultry) is cooked thoroughly and stored at
appropriate temperatures.
In Pakistan, food inspectors are in the field conducting raids almost every day. Food
safety violations are rampant in the country with cases of food poisoning reported in
local newspapers every other day. Almost every time a case of food poisoning is
reported, it has been food consumed outside the house, says Yusra Bint-e-Khalid, a
food safety coordinator at Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi. When eating out,
we dont know if the dishes were washed properly, how hygienic the kitchen was or
whether the cooks washed their hands before preparing the meal, she says, relaying
the concerns of many in the country.

Street food thrives amid unhygienic conditions. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Senior scientific officer at Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Researchs


microbiology lab in Islamabad, Dr Sabahat, took food samples for research and
development work from restaurants along motorways in Punjab only to find that the
majority of restaurants there were offering substandard food to the travellers. Karachi
Metropolitan Corporations senior director of medical and health services, Dr Salma
Kausar Ali, shares her ordeal during a raid on a bakery. With a look of absolute disgust
on her face, Ali says people would stop buying baked treats altogether if they ever
step inside a filthy bakery kitchen.

During Ramazan, alleys and sidewalks are overflowing with stalls selling samosas,
pakoras and jalaibees to satiate public demand. As small-scale set-ups surface
everywhere, experts advise people to think twice before indulging in items from these
places. Food sold at roadside stalls is not safe for consumption most of the time,
warns Professor Butt. Due to their low-cost business model, street vendors fail to
ensure basic safety standards such as cleanliness, high quality ingredients and clean
water. The food dyes used in cooking are toxic and can cause cancer, he says. You
must have seen children buying cheap confectioneries which stain their tongue, he
adds.

Most roadside stalls do not cover their items, allowing flies to feed on them. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

According to Professor Butt buying pakoras and other fried snacks from outside can be
unsafe as many sellers due to sheer increase in demand during Ramazan focus
on quantity while quality takes a backseat. Often these snacks are fried in low-quality
oil which turns into dangerous trans-fat because of reheating and overheating, he
says. Additionally, as the oil begins to run low, instead of throwing away the remainder
most pour more oil into the karahi spoiling the entire lot. Trans-fat clogs arteries and
causes coronary heart disease, he adds.

On refrying leftover snacks, food inspector Bhatti says pakoras and samosas cannot be
refried as the look and taste changes overtime. You can freeze uncooked samosas

and pakora batter but once they are deep fried, they have to be consumed, Bhatti
says, adding majority of the food outlets give away all that is left behind. Many
restaurants and sweetmeat shops distribute leftover food among their employees,
madrassas and charities after they close for the day. A few wait till midnight but not
beyond that, he says.

An unappetising display of dates at a roadside stall. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Overall, food sold by hawkers or at roadside stalls pose greater health risks. Vendors
lack the basic infrastructure to keep food safe and in most cases possess zero
knowledge of hygiene, both environmental and personal. They also fail to follow the
most important food rule: warm food should be kept warm and cold food should be
kept cold, says Professor Butt. Moreover, WHO advises consumers to buy street food
that is prepared in front of them, using safe ingredients and clean equipment and by
someone who has taken extra precaution for hygiene.

The food scene in the country might be unpleasant, but not all is bad. There appears
to be a consensus among people in the food safety industry that big names provide
safer food. Believe it or not, restaurant giants maintain their own food safety
standards. Go eat there! Khalid advises, seconded by Professor Butt. In contrast to
small-scale businesses that have no concept of hygiene, Khalid says, Renowned
restaurants prepare food in a clean environment with good quality produce and ensure
those handling food [follow the kitchen dress code].

Men prepare bun kebabs at a roadside stall without wearing gloves. PHOTOS BY ARIF SOOMRO

In agreement, food inspector Bhatti says, famous eateries will not risk losing
customers to safety scandals. If you find your food is substandard, wouldnt you stop
going to that outlet and tell your family and friends to do the same? Erum Basit,
product development chef at a top restaurant in Karachi, corroborates Bhattis claims.
She admits that although smaller in number, high-end restaurants follow strict hygiene
standards. Hair nets and gloves are mandatory for all kitchen employees while a
team of qualified food personnel is responsible for implementing the Hazard Analysis
and Critical Control Points system (a process through which food is inspected at all
stages of production), she reveals, adding that a regular training programme is also
carried out for kitchen and floor staff. Despite the strict safety measures, however,
Basit laments the lack of qualified staff in the industry which makes food standard
violations an everyday reality.

Kanza, who allegedly died due to food poisoning in January, was one of the two million
people who succumb to contaminated food or unsafe drinking water globally every
year. Although there is no consolidated data on the number of people who fall sick in
Pakistan, media reports provide a snapshot of the alarming situation in the country.
Victims of food poisoning notice symptoms after hours, sometimes days, says Khalid.
The contaminating bacteria pass from the stomach into the intestines and begin to
multiply. Some produce harmful substances that are absorbed into the bloodstream
while others directly invade body tissues, she adds. The symptoms depend greatly
on the type of bacteria, but the most common reactions are diarrhoea, vomiting and
stomach cramps, she says, adding that diarrhoea and vomiting are a result of the
body trying to rid itself of harmful bacteria.

Men package dates with their bare hands. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

In extreme instances, stomach aches and cramping lead to bloody diarrhoea, kidneys
shutting down and seizures and the worst case scenario is death by food. Losing
precious life to an illness as preventable as food poisoning is unfortunate. With
increased globalisation of the food chain and no integrated safety system in place in
the country, the major burden of preventing food poisoning falls on consumers.

Food served at roadside restaurants is often prepared in unsanitary cooking conditions. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Given the fact that more and more people are eating out, experts advise prevention
over cure. Even small details make a huge difference; I would never eat food from a
restaurant whose server has untrimmed nails, Khalid says.
*The graphs in the story are results of a survey conducted on The Express
Tribune website. A total of 334 participants from different backgrounds
completed the survey.
Ferya Ilyas is a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @ferya_ilyas

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 5 th, 2015.

Flash floods: Ice G-B


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Flash floods: Ice G-B


By Shabbir Mir / Creative: Hira Fareed
Published: October 25, 2015

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Residents of Bagrote valley patrol the area at night to preempt any glacial lake outburst floods. DESIGN BY HIRA FAREED

In the early 1900s, residents of Gilgit-Baltistans (G-B) Bagrote valley, around 40


kilometres from Gilgit city, patrolled their territory to guard it against Gohar Amans
onslaughts. Aman was a ruthless ruler of what is now Ghizer district in G-B and a fierce
opponent of Bagrotes residents. Stories of Amans atrocities still find their way in
everyday conversations.
Today, more than a century later, Bagrotes people continue to patrol the area. Their
adversary, though, is no longer a man. It is Mother Natures fury, triggered by climate
change. Surrounded by 13 glaciers, the valley is inhabited by nearly 16,000 people.
These residents live under a constant threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), a
natural phenomenon that has resulted in substantial losses in various parts of the
world over the years.

This year alone, four GLOFs instigated flash floods which swept away eight bridges, a
hydel power project, dozens of water channels, standing crops and roads in Bagrote
valley. Agriculture accounts for 15% of G-Bs production and such climatic
catastrophes put a serious dent in the areas economy.
We are at risk of flash floods and the situation aggravates from June to October, says
Adil Shah, a local farmer. There were so many flash floods this year. We were able to
save our lives only because we were vigilant and adopted precautionary measures,
he adds, referring to the village hazard watch group (VHWG) formed by the Pakistan
GLOF Project. The GLOF Project is working with GLOF-prone mountain communities in
northern Pakistan to reduce risks from GLOFs and flash floods caused by melting snow.
At least 10 VHWGs were formed under the project, one in each village. The VHWG was
equipped with the necessary equipment to alert locals in case of flash floods. Each
group consists of around six men, most of them shepherds who spend their time on
mountain peaks with their herds of livestock. They are provided cellphones and
trained to use the devices, enabling them to communicate any possible threat to
others.
Though no loss of life occurred, the loss of property was immense. People have lost
their livelihood, laments Shah. The role of VHWGs was critical. We are thankful to
GLOF Project for that, adds the farmer, who lost his brother to a flashflood in the
valley two decades ago.
Another local farmer, Imtiaz Ali, says the village has been without electricity for the
past month after a hydel power project was swept away in a flood.
Climate change

The change in weather patterns has had a profound effect on farmers. Till two
decades ago, the ploughing season would start on March 21. It now begins in
February, shares Ali. The date has now just become a ceremonial activity to
reminisce.
Dr Babar Khan of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says snow which usually fell
on mountain peaks in November and December now comes a month or so later. This
delay means there is less time before the snow ultimately melts and triggers floods
when the weather gets warmer around April.
Averting disasters

Pakistan GLOF Project has taken a number of precautionary measures to avert


catastrophes in Bagrote valley. Special embankments called gabion walls were

constructed at six places along the ravines to neutralise the flow of water which has
previously swept away homes and wreaked havoc.

The technique proved instrumental in saving the population from disaster as at least
four GLOFs occurred this year, says Zahid Shah of GLOF Project, under which locals
removed debris from four ravines with the help of excavators to help flood water pass
uninterrupted. Previously, nullahs were filled with boulders which obstructed the flow
of water and changed its course towards villages.
In the same vein, a safe haven has been prepared for villagers in case of any
impending doom. The facility is equipped with necessary items including medicines,
tents, edibles and toilets. A group of at least 33 men and women have also been
trained in risk reduction techniques. Moreover, an endowment fund of Rs2,200,000
has been created to help communities prevent disasters or mitigate losses. Local
communities contributed Rs200,000 to this fund.
In addition to these measures, the meteorological department has set up two weather
stations at an altitude of 4,100 metres to collect data from satellites. According to the
data compiled in 2013, there are 36 lakes close to glaciers. And if these lakes overflow
and trigger floods, they are bound to wreck havoc with the population downstream,
warns Shah. The entire region is mountainous like Bagrote, posing a continuous risk

of flash floods, he says. The only way out of this is to replicate the programme in
other areas as well.
Shabbir Mir is a Gilgit-based reporter for The Express Tribune. He tweets
@ShabbirMir

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 25 th, 2015.

Singapore: A portrait of peace and diversity


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Singapore: A portrait of peace and diversity


By Naveed Hussain / Creative: EESHA AZAM
Published: October 18, 2015

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Singapore charms you from the moment you land there. DESIGN BY EESHA AZAM

I woke up to a melodic, saccharine voice. Fasten your seat-belts, please. Well be


landing at Changi International Airport in about 15 minutes, announced a flight
attendant onboard Cathay Pacific B777. The sky was partly cloudy. The sun peeped in
and out of clouds floating past, the rays glinting off my window. Down in the Singapore
Strait, bulk freighters and gigantic cargo ships looked like small paper boats. Changi
airport is one of the best in the world but in Singapores equatorial downpours, it
sometimes becomes a dangerous airport to fly into.
We landed safely. In stark contrast to Karachis Quaid-e-Azam International Airport,
Changis ambience exuded affluence. It is the diversity of greenery here that truly
leaves one amazed. Terminal-I has a cactus garden, showcasing dozens of species of
cacti and succulents from Asia, Africa and North and South America. The fern garden

at Terminal-II is landscaped with giant Tasmanian tree ferns, featuring tropical ferns
from the oldest rainforests in the world. The Changi Airport Orchid Garden features
spider orchids, Singapores famous hybrid butterfly orchids, and moth orchids from the
Orchid Island of Taiwan.
As I was looking for the exit, I ran into a young, smiling airport staffer. Can you please
guide me to the main exit? I asked. Are you going to some hotel? he replied in singsong tonal English (in Singapore, the English accent is peppered with Mandarin, Malay
and Tamil words some people call it Singlish). We offer tourists a free ride, the
young man continued, pointing to a counter some 50 yards away.

And so my journey began. The bus cruised through busy downtown districts, serene,
sleepy residential neighbourhoods and refreshing botanical gardens. The architecture
is a unique mix of pre-war styles: traditional Malay houses, temples of Chinese
immigrants, and classical colonial architecture. After World War II and as Singapore
began to emerge as a major global sea lane, its architecture, too, began to be shaped
by international trends such as brutalism and postmodernism.
Singaporean society is a vivid portrait of diversity, a multicultural kaleidoscope. It was
an idyllic island of Malay fishermen until 1819 when British colonial administrator Sir
Stamford Raffles, the architect of modern Singapore, arrived. Subsequently, merchants

and migrants flocked in from the southern provinces of China, Indonesia, India,
Pakistan, Ceylon and the Middle East in search of a better future here.
I was in Singapore for a three-day seminar hosted by the World Intellectual Property
Organisation (WIPO). The day after I arrived, I met with nearly two dozen invitees to
the seminar from South, Southeast and East Asian countries and as far as Fiji. At the
WIPOs head office, top local businessmen proudly told their success stories, while
WIPO executives fed us as much information as they could. They wanted us to swallow
and digest as much as we could in the brief time that we were there.
Around 2 pm lunch was served. A small canteen at the WIPO offices offered dishes
completely strange to my taste buds. Like its ethnic diversity, Singapore serves up a
true melting pot of flavours and food. Chinese cuisine is a major player in the local
gastronomy as Cantonese dim sum, Hainanese chicken rice, Peking duck, Hokkien mee
(fried noodles) and popiah (spring rolls) are some of the popular Chinese dishes. But
you will also find halal Malay food, South Indian vegetarian thali and North Indian
biryani in restaurants across the country.
For the next two days we had the same schedule. A commute to the WIPO head office,
a long session of presentations, lunch with WIPO executives and then back to our
hotel. After we returned from dinner on the second night, fellow journalists Rhaydz
Barcia of The Manila Times, Revolusi Riza of Indonesias Trans 7, Vijay Narayan of
Communications Fiji Ltd and Jacqueline Wari of Fijis The National who had become
friends by now decided to go on a sightseeing trip.
Id already seen the legendary Mermaid of Denmark, and wanted to see the famous
Merlion, the half-lion, half-fish must-see icon of Singapore. Merlion symbolises the
countrys humble beginning as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, sea town
in Old Javanese. Its head represents Singapores original name, Singapura, or lion city
in Malay. It was built by local craftsman Lim Nang Seng and unveiled in September
1972 at the mouth of the Singapore River. However, when the Esplanade Bridge was
completed in 1997, Merlion could no longer be viewed clearly from the waterfront. In
2002, it was relocated 120 metres away to Merlion Park.
The next day, we went to the iconic Raffles Hotel for dinner with the WIPO family. The
most famous luxury hotel in Singapore, Raffles, named after the city state founder Sir
Stamford Raffles, epitomises the islands colonial history. The hotels main building,
designed by RAJ Bidwell, is a beautiful example of neo-Renaissance architecture with
tropical touches like high ceilings and extensive verandas. The hotel is said to have
played host to literary legends like Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse and Rudyard
Kipling.

Before I departed Singapore, I wanted to buy something for my son, Mikael, as a


souvenir. My Indonesian and Vietnamese colleagues promised to take me to a market
before we left for the airport for our long journey back home. The next morning, we set
off for Bugis Street, the islands famous retail shopping market. In the 1950s, Bugis
Street was the sleaze pit of Singapore where flamboyantly dressed transvestites would
parade themselves, attracting sailors and servicemen from overseas. Today, Bugis
Street has undergone a massive facelift, and houses nearly 800 shops selling
inexpensive clothes, shoes, accessories and food, and offering beauty services.
Shopping in the narrow alleyways of this undercover market crammed with shoppers
was fun. Surprisingly, Bugis Street resembles Karachis Zaibunnisa Street in more
ways than one. I bought some T-shirts and chocolates for my son and some gifts for
my wife all for less than 100 Singaporean dollars. My colleagues also shopped for
friends and families before we returned to the hotel one last time. Back in the hotel,
we quickly packed and left for Changi airport. I left Singapore that day but a part of
me refused to come back.
Naveed Hussain is national editor at The Express Tribune. He tweets
@navidjourno

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 18 th, 2015.