Islamabad - The Soho of Islamabad is F-6’s Kohsar Market, known by the townspeople as one of the liveliest and happening locales in the country, the much-loved haunt of the country’s crème de la crème when they happen to be in Islamabad.

The abiding interest of most visitors, from couples to groups is banter and humour, which they indulge in, and the jokes cracked are often about contemporary interests. And lately the interest is in stories around food & restaurant hygiene inspections that targeted many restaurants in the area. The inspections have unnerved customers, as is evident from the many available tables which were until sometime back hard to book. Of course people have become aware with media spotlight on inspections and the root cause of these inspections, falling standards of hygiene at a cross section of nation’s eateries, upmarket and street-side, both.

Regulatory control has been active since the early 20th Century when the USFDA was set up, ensuring enforcement of hygiene in food produced, distributed and served at eateries. Over the past century, it has influenced governments worldwide in order to protect health of their respective populations. In the west, focus has been on meat, dairy, poultry and agricultural crops, for toxins and quality concerns, besides food storage and processing conditions, setting certain standards for the functioning and operations of restaurant establishments.

Hamza, 20, is manager at the Mocca Coffee, Kohsar Market. He talks about the panic wave that has hit customers. “People are wary and reluctant to visit restaurants and our cafe remained partially filled throughout the week affecting the business. Perceptions developed, following the raids that restaurants serve unhygienic food, and as such dining out trend is declining.”

“Inspections make complete sense, to enforce food hygiene in eateries, which had been ignored in the past. Public health is a certain priority and the inspection regime should be systematic and holistic,” a group of the students in the same coffee shop told The Nation.

Assistant Commissioner (Potohar) Nishaa Ishtiak, revealing the details of inspections said, “Home-based bakeries and biscuit manufacturing compounds were sealed and fined across the capital for delivering rotten stuff to bakers. Our team along with the CDA officials, livestock officers and sanitation and food inspectors carried out inspections at various cafes in Super Markets and F-11 where 17 such cafes including Savour Foods and Chaaye Khana were sealed for their poor standards of quality.”

However the Chaaye Khana Manager Amir Iqbal has a different perspective on the episode. He said, “The inspecting team had no proof at all to seal our café, the expiry date was missing on the packets which were made on the same date. Still we were fined Rs 70,000 and one day closure.”

Iqbal asserts confidently on their adherence to standards and trust of patrons they still have.

Murad Jamali, a regular visitor to the Kohsar Market cafes says, “There are very few things in our country that can be trusted and every discourse has two narratives. There are people criticizing the inspection process but overall it is a welcome change but not long-lasting. However, it is compelling the restaurant owners to at least have fear of these sudden inspections.”

“The poor state of hygiene is alarming and is affecting people on long-term basis. Surely, after hearing about the bad quality of food availability at our restaurants, people are careful about eating outside,” said Fasahat-ul-Hassan sitting in Chaaye Khana Café.

Eminent nutritionist Dr Haroon Jehangir Khan stressed the need for better standards, since there has been a boom in eateries, with people now eating out very frequently, which is developing into a pleasure all classes and groups now seek to enjoy, however with the focus now on the poor standards of hygiene, it is declining. He said, “Unhygienic food is certainly bad for health, however most restaurants owners seldom consider focusing on quality of their kitchen and serving, solely for making higher profits and therefore compromising health or even lives of their patrons and customers.”

Authorities are also concerned about the source of ingredients used in the food served at restaurants. District Food Controller of Islamabad, Raja Muhammad Ashraf points to that when he says, “Not only is most of the meat sold unfit for consumption, as one can sense from the foul smell, these shops in Islamabad also tend to have faulty measurements and scales, and they have been fined many times. Some meat sellers try to escape inspections by locking their shops for many hours.” He also denied that sealing is the only norm, insisting that warnings are also given in some cases, advising establishments to improve their hygiene standards, as they are provided clear guidelines on many aspects of kitchen and serving hygiene.

Experts also echo this need. Dr Mehmood-ul-Hassan, a renowned professor and consultant who has 50 years experience in the food processing domain says, “Sealing restaurants and cafes is not necessary for the government to enforce the standards of hygiene. People working in the bakeries are not qualified and it is not their mistake; the problem lies elsewhere with no training institutions, unlike most other countries, to create skills of the level it takes to operate a restaurant establishment which maintains acceptable standards of hygiene. Proper schedule should be issued to inspect different spots but the government responds suddenly. There are neither many experts in this sector to consult and train these people how to work nor do we have any such setup to improve quality of food.”

Dr Hassan expressed other pressing concerns on the technology used in the processing of food, which remains dismal when it comes to adhering to certain standards in maintaining hygiene, and also the lack of any research on this domain in the country. Unless our government acts to set quality research on food, not much will change and inspection simply cannot be a sustainable practice in the long term, and we have to consider a regime that has in its scope other remote cities and areas of the country. And that will ensure a consummate and holistic approach towards enforcing standards of hygiene.

“We do not have any personal grudges with any restaurant or hotel, we take action only on lack of cleanliness. People started realising these practices and our aim is looking to fulfil apace. The technical affairs like ingredients are yet to be checked, it is just the cleanliness we are looking for,” Abdul Sattar Isaani, Additional DC told The Nation.

It is not as if patrons are overjoyed at the closure of their favourite eateries, some are disappointed that the establishments they frequented and found fairly decent for many years have been shut down all of a sudden on hygiene grounds. And they are baffled that some of the establishments deemed poor continue to operate. This was echoed by Atif Ali, an IT professional. “The dining out culture is popular across classes, rich to middle class and low income people, in Pakistan. I am disappointed on the closure of Savour Foods and Chaaye Khana, both have quality food and they have been closed; however many others, which are quite poor in keeping to standards, are still in operation.”

There is room for humour in all of this, one of the waiting staff at Gloria Jeans said, “In fact, some customers asked us if Ayesha Mumtaz of Punjab Food Authority had visited the cafe.”

However most customers find inspections to be a fair development, as one of them, Ali Shah told this correspondent, “Every restaurant must be subject to these inspections, and since we pay a premium for dining out, we deserve the quality. These inspections are sustained in the long term, the quality of food at eateries will certainly improve.”

On the whole, what has emerged from the interactions with many enforcement officials, restaurant managers, patrons and customers, and especially domain experts such as Dr Hassan, is the need for a holistic approach, towards setting up standards, that range from kitchen and serving conditions to the quality of ingredients and also the personal hygiene of the entire staff at all establishments. In doing so, restaurants can be graded, where an inspection that results in a medium to low score is published and the business advised to gear up towards fixing certain areas where they scored low. And enforcement should also be supported by the government by investing in food and catering education, in order to bring about an informed ecosystem of inspectors and dining businesses, who complement each other in order to develop and adhere to better standards of hygiene. In giving them an opportunity to improve, not only will it reassure the patrons and customers, it will enhance the reputation of the country as a whole as a place with hygienic eateries and lovely places to visit, a veritable paradise.

—The writer is a freelance contributor.