A spate of food poisoning cases across the UAE has raised the spectre of whether eating out is really safe.
The fact that this comes on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan only further augments the worry in people’s minds.
This is why Dubai Municipality has acted to clarify that not every case of nausea, vomiting and severe stomach ache should be attributed to food poisoning from the food you just ordered from your neighbourhood takeaway.
Often, food poisoning, may well have come from your home kitchen.
In 2011, Dubai Municipality in cooperation with the Dubai Health Authority identified 694 confirmed cases of food poisoning.
During the same period 529 cases of suspected food poisoning cases were reported.
"Most of these cases occur in the household," said Khaled Mohammad Shareef, Director of Food Control Department yesterday at a press conference on the developments of food safety in Dubai and the Ramadan Food Safety Campaign.
According to the team that applies a food-borne disease surveillance system in the emirate of Dubai, the prevalence of food poisoning within households is partly caused by the fact that people tend to adopt kitchen practices that are applied in their home country.
What they do not take into account, is that temperatures in the UAE can be quite different, which requires different practices, explain the team.
Bacteria grow quicker in warm temperatures and a single bacterium can multiply to a million in a few hours. Correct storage is therefore all the more important in a hot climate.
"Chilled food should be kept at less than 5 degrees C̊, whereas cooked hot food should be kept warm at 60 C̊," explains Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Studies and Survey Officer at the department.
"Foods such as cooked rice, meat, cut fruits, salads, desserts with milk, cream and eggs should always be held under temperature control.
"Such foods should be eaten within two hours of preparation if the facilities to store food at that temperature are not available."
Moreover, cold foods like salads and desserts are considered high-risk foods, which can become unsafe very fast especially in hot weather.
"Such foods should not be left at room temperature for a long time," says Bobby.
Food Safety Report 2011
The Food Control Department presented the Food Safety Report of 2011 yesterday, concluding that the food status in Dubai throughout that year had been good.
The percentage of inspected foods which complied with the laboratory standards was 90.7 per cent in 2011 compared to 89.6 per cent in 2010.
From the more than 13,000 active food establishment 95 per cent was found complying with approved standards.
"For those establishments that are found not complying with regulations we issue a temporary closure notice until all violations are rectified and corrective action is applied," says Sultan Ali Al Taher, Head of Food Inspection Section.
"We work continuously and routinely applying an electronic inspection system based on risk, and visits of inspection depend upon food premises' last grade, which they gained from the last inspection visit."
As part of a campaign to ensure food quality during the Holy month of Ramadan additional efforts will be carried out by the Food Inspection Section with a focus on the traditional Arabic kitchen and grocery stores.
"We will monitor these premises before and after the Iftar timings, as these are the most commonly visited places during this month," explains Khalid.
Food establishment will be required permission to display the food, which may only be presented 2 hours before Iftar and should be done according to required temperatures.
"We discourage people to buy food from premises that do not seem to be approved, such as street sellers offering food from a stand.
"Whenever a food violation is noticed, this can be reported by dialing 800900. The premise should be named, and the department will take action," said Khaled.
For the public the Food Control Department furthermore developed a 5-point list of advises which people should take in consideration to enjoy a healthy Ramadan.
1. Plan ahead the amount of food that you wish to prepare based on the number of people and serving size.
2. Limit the time between preparation and serving of the food. Best practice is to serve right after preparation.
3. Store food safely after preparation; hot food at 60 C̊, chilled food below 5 C̊.
4. When transporting food use hot boxes or chilled vehicles.
5. Buy safely; do not buy food or snacks that are sold in open condition in the street side or sold by unapproved vendors.