A heart wrenching incident took place two months back when two children lost their lives due to food they dined in from a renowned restaurant in Karachi. The mother survived the food but her both children lost their lives. As the tragedy became a breaking news, Director Food Authority showed agility in taking notice of the incident but it was too late to neutralize the damage done. Two weeks ago, the parents have forgiven in the court those responsible and didn’t wish to take further action against them.

Right after the tragic death of children, the inspection of that renowned restaurant unveiled the ignorance of policy makers towards the health of a common man. It also disclosed the enormity of the crime. First, Sindh Food Authority was established in 2017. It simply depicts there had been no qualitative inspection of restaurants before 2017. Second, only four officers were working in Food Authority and on daily wages as well. No government resources to operationalize their working were provided to them. Third, there was no precise mechanism of issuing food licensing to restaurants and other food operators. Fourth, there was no independent Food Testing Laboratory in Sindh to scrutinize the complete regime of food items. The samples were used to send to Agha Khan Hospital. Fifth, expensive restaurants had been importing food items in plethora that were stored for the span of two to three years (meat was also stored for months and years).

The burning questions are, what type of quality and hygiene of food had been serving in restaurants to the people of Sindh in all these years? And is it more or less, the same scenario in rest of the provinces?

The food samples that were taken from the restaurant in Karachi were sent to Punjab Forensic Science Agency and to Agha Khan University Hospital to check the composition of food. The results were shocking. The food had been expired three years ago but it was still serving to the customers. Apart from this particular incident, this practice was common and continue in small and expensive restaurants because there was no formulated criteria to inspect and book adulterators and violators of food safety laws. Punjab Food Authority, in comparison to Sindh, was established in 2011 and it worked on four important domains. For instance, the authority made it mandatory for packed items to be sold with expiry date mentioned on it. Moreover, a regular inspection of restaurants by food authority took place in Punjab. There have been number of occasions where restaurants were sealed and fined on selling expired or sub-standard food. Since, the dining custom in restaurants in KPK and Balochistan (other than provincial capitals) is less as compared to Sindh and Punjab, the complaints are therefore proportionally less.

The mafia that was operating in Punjab to sell expired and adulterated food items moved to Sindh and KPK after the crackdown of Punjab Food Authority in Lahore. Due to ignorance of government officials towards food quality in restaurants, this mafia made its space elsewhere. This malpractice of selling expired food has effected the health of many people. Perhaps the young people might survive adulterated and contaminated food but it takes the lives of children. Those who survive however, suffer from heart or liver ailments. PM Imran Khan talks volume about malnourishment and health issues in Pakistan, yet his cabinet hasn’t have briefed him about the criminal approach of such mafia and sloppiness of concerned departments.

In hue of uncertainty of eateries in restaurants, provincial governments need to strengthen their respective food authorities by providing them resources and human capital. There is a dire need of developing latest food testing laboratories in Sindh and KPK. These laboratories ought to check adulteration and composition of all food items; customary or undeclared ingredients in prepared and raw food. Surprise checks to be organized and instant punishment be given to violators. Cosmetic punishments often meted out, are not even more than what they can earn from a day's illicit operations. A limit of import of food items to be devised so that bigger restaurants must not store such material for years. In order to improve the quality of food in restaurants, government needs to introduce a centralized portal where customers could file a complaint with proof against unhygienic food and the respective restaurant. Food chains (local or international) although boast about their quality through aggressive marketing, there have been numerous complaints against them in the past too.

It is certainly true that concerned departments only wake up from deep slumber only after losing some lives. This is but a thorny issue. It is directly linked to the health of citizens. After a bit of hemming and hawing, Sindh government is taking steps to resource Food Authority, still the mafia looms large in Sindh and other provinces as well. So Karachiites! Beware of the poison in your plate.