Food Safety Issues rise in Colombo

This newspaper’s News Desk has been following up on Public Health issues for some time, and their ongoing reports should raise concerns among Colombo residents, both the affluent, and the not-so, because of the declining standards in the monitoring of food establishments, from the humble ‘buth kades’ to the restaurants of five-star hotels.There is a lot of debate about the delay in holding Local Government elections and whether the representatives of the country’s Municipalities, Urban Councils and Praadeshiya Sabhas should be elected under the proportional representation system, the old ward system or a combination of the two. There is, however, little debate on how many of these local councils actually work, and do their work.

The News Desk has been concentrating much of its efforts on how the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), the country’s showpiece local council, operates, and especially in an area that directly affects its rate-payers and residents – ensuring food safety.

Only last week, it was discovered that a CMC Public Health Department worker had been admitted to the National Hospital with not only dengue but also with typhoid fever.

In Colombo, the underground water is polluted. Even five-star hotels use underground water to prepare food although under the Municipal Ordinance by-laws, water supply should be from the city mains. Many hotels use underground water to save on their water bill.

The sewer lines in Colombo are overloaded and prone to leaks that pollute the underground water supply. According to those in the know, residents in areas from Colombo Fort to Wellawatte, including those working in and patronising star class hotels in these areas are at risk of water-borne diseases.

Sicknesses such as hepatitis, typhoid, para typhoid, diarrhea and viral stomach ailments knock-on the belly of those affected for days, some getting treatment from General Medical Practitioners (GPs) and others even needing hospitalisation. Only Government hospitals provide statistics to the Epidemiology Unit so the real figures of those affected are not known.

At the bottom of this malaise seems to be major happenings at the Municipality’s Public Health Department with in-fighting, court cases and a privatisation programme in lab reports. These give a foul stench.

There is a need for constant checks on workers in all eating houses, including the bigger hotels, restaurants and even clubs, big and small. Only investigations can find the source of a disease so that preventive action can be taken. Medical examinations of eating houses is compulsory under Municipal by-laws such as the Food Hygiene Regulations, and what use are elections of councillors if they, once elected, do not supervise the implementation of these by-laws when they are practised in the breach.

The Tourism Authority also has regulations governing food safety. Its capacity to check on food relied almost entirely on the investigations carried out by the Municipalities and other local bodies around the country. It has been given this responsibility to protect tourists (tourism being one of the country’s major foreign exchange earners) but what’s the status when these local councils fall on their own responsibilities? Today, private laboratories, with questionable ability are tasked with providing these reports, something the CMC did on its own for more than 40 years, but now side-lined due to petty in-fighting and jealousies.

Most Sri Lankans have an in-built immune mechanism to cope with most germs they have grown up with. What of the unsuspecting tourist for whom an upset stomach can ruin his entire holiday?

The CMC, like many other councils, is no doubt, hard-pressed for human resources, with its Public Health Inspectors battling the dengue menace on the one hand. However, when the CMC’s Microbiological Laboratory, the regulatory arm gazetted by the Ministry of Health, has the professionalism and wherewithal to do the job, it is mind-boggling why its services are not used. As of today, the CMC hardly tests for Salmonella, Staphylococcus Aureus etc., any more – all food poisons and these are now handled by private labs which have mushroomed only in recent times. The fall-out on the entire food safety monitoring is to be expected.

When the whole country is talking about kidney disease, Creatinine tests for kidney patients, Hemoglobin tests for pregnant mothers, HbA1C for diabetes sufferers – and HIV tests have come to a standstill for the past 4-5 months and Pathological services for the poor heart patients are wanting. These constitute a serious situation. It is well and good to keep asking when the next Local Government elections are. These are mere political exercises. City Fathers (and now Mothers) are a dime a dozen. With the rapid construction boom and hundreds upon hundreds of high rise buildings and apartment blocks coming up, the strain on the water requirements and the corresponding drainage and sewerage capacities has to increase multi-fold.

With problems already existing, is the city ready for this explosion? The system needs fixing at the officials’ level – not the political level so much, before the public health systems completely break down in the capital city and the malaise spreads to the rest of the country, where it is not much different.

 

Source: The Sunday Times. Date: August 7, 2016

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160807/editorial/food-safety-issues-rise-in-colombo-203823.html