Ensuring food safety

Consumers in Oman are now used to headlines screaming seizure of food items and closure of eateries for not following safety standards and regulations. Adding to the mounting concern is the rising number of cases relating to tampering with labels and manufacturing and expiry dates. The latest reports indicate that huge quantities of imported food, which were not fit for human consumption, were confiscated at Sohar Port.
According to a statement from the Food Import Control Department, 1,321 cartons of food that weighed 7,915 kg were destroyed last week. The Directorate General of Health Affairs at Muscat Municipality had ordered closure of 245 shops and imposed fines for more than 1,500 violations following 20,691 inspections carried out in 2017 at different locations.
This is in addition to destroying 8,000 kilograms of meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits and cooked food that were found to be unfit for consumption. Reacting to such incidents, a reader reacted, “Companies that tamper with expiry dates of food items and importing contaminated food are committing premeditated murder”.
Expiration date is a legal requirement to warranty that the food gets fresh to the final customer.
“Food safety is everybody’s concern, and it is difficult to find anyone who has not encountered an unpleasant moment of foodborne illness at least once in the past year”, says a report by World Health Organisation.
Foodborne illnesses may result from the consumption of food contaminated by microbial pathogens, toxic chemicals or radioactive materials. Food allergy is another emerging problem.

Stringent measures
Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases — ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. While many foodborne diseases may be self-limiting, some can be very serious and even result in death. Ensuring food safety is becoming increasingly important in the context of changing food habits, popularisation of mass catering establishments and the globalisation of our food supply.
“As our food supply becomes increasingly globalised, the need to strengthen food safety systems in and between all countries is becoming more and more evident”, adds the report.
According to Omani consumer law, violators can be fined up to RO 55,000 and face a maximum of 15 years in jail.
Despite prevalence of stringent food safety rules and strict monitoring of their adherence, how come the number of violations increase in the Sultanate, ask experts. The highest risk items are products of animal origin, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, dairy products and honey.
“All these products require certification and must come from an approved establishment

in an approved country”, said an official at the Muscat Municipality.
Most importers are well aware of food laws and have good practice, but we want to crack down on some of the importers who are deliberately flouting the rules, he said
“We want to stamp out illegal food imports, to ensure our residents are eating the safe and high quality food they deserve”, stressed the official.
While Oman has many laws of its own regarding imports of food items, it also follows the GCC set of regulations formulated in accordance with the standards of World Trade Organisation.
Regulatory enforcement of food products is divided between the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the various municipalities within the Sultanate.
The agriculture ministry is responsible for inspection of live animals and plants, red meats, poultry meat, agricultural materials, timber and grains and other unprocessed agricultural products at all points of entry into the country.

The Health Quarantine Department, MOH, is responsible for inspection of imported semi and fully processed food products, including sugar. Municipalities may post officials at the country’s ports of entry, but their role in inspection of imported foods is very marginal.
The civic bodies are primarily involved in the regulation of food thru inspection of products available on the local market.
Products shipped in bulk must meet Omani labelling requirements and must be accompanied by small, easy to handle samples for possible laboratory verification. The sample container must contain a label that meets all labelling requirements.
Bilingual labels are permitted, provided one of the languages is Arabic and another preferably English. Arabic language stickers are permitted in lieu of the original Arabic or bilingual label is provided.
Dates must be engraved, embossed, printed or stamped directly onto the original label or primary packaging at time of production, using indelible ink. Stickers with date stamps imprinted are not accepted. While technically these dates must be printed in Arabic, dates printed in English or English/Arabic are accepted.
All food consignments must be accompanied by a health certificate issued by the appropriate government agency in the country of origin that attests to the product’s fitness for human consumption. Also a Halal slaughter certificate issued by an approved Islamic centre in the country of origin for all meat and poultry products.
Municipality food inspectors randomly check food products in the market regardless of origin. In addition to a visual label inspection, a sample may be analysed to verify the accuracy of the label versus actual product content.
If a discrepancy is found, the product is removed from the market and destroyed at the supplier’s expense.