Crackdown: Has the Punjab Food Authority's raid on eateries gone too far?

Crackdown: Has the Punjab Food Authority's raid on eateries gone too far?

The PFA's been publicly shaming businesses that flout hygiene standards. Some restaurant owners are rebelling
07 Sep, 2015

Have you heard of the ‘Dabangg lady’?

That's what the Punjab Food Authority's now-very-popular Director of Operations, Ayesha Mumtaz, is being called on social media.

In case you hadn't noticed, the Punjab Food Authority (PFA) has been going around Lahore fining, warning and sealing any establishment dealing with food that are found in 'unsatisfactory' (read unhygienic) conditions – from high-end, expensive restaurants to low-end, small food businesses. The authority claims it is doing this to create awareness not only about the food people were being served, but also about hygiene, sanitation and cleanliness at restaurants, food factories and cafes.

Eating out is a very important part of Lahori lifestyle, primarily for a lack of recreational activities in the city. In fact, before cinemas popped up in Lahore this was probably the only thing people could do to get out of the house, either with family or friends. And while relishing all kinds of experiences from fine dining to drinking tea at dhabas, one would generally not pay much attention to how the food was prepared or what ingredients were used — out of sight, out of mind was the attitude, and if the food tasted delicious, that's all that mattered.

But not anymore. Not since the very efficient Punjab Food Authority stepped in.

Also read: Food authority’s ‘efficiency’ irks outlet managers

The results of PFA's raids are publicised on PFA’s Facebook page, complete with pictures of the ‘filth’ found at the places it shuts down. High-profile hotels like Pearl Continental and Avari Hotels have been fined, as have swanky restaurants like Pallilos Courtyard and Freddy's Cafe. Fast food chains like the Hardee's and Fatburger on M. M. Alam Road have been sealed. Even the OPTP kiosk outside the Mall of Lahore was sealed due to the continued use of low quality potatoes despite a verbal warning.

While these raids and crackdowns have highlighted how appalling the state of hygiene at most of the city’s eateries is, they have also provided customers and clientele with the opportunity to report any establishment that they find unhygienic, not following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or working in unsanitary conditions.

Moreover, a web developer has come up with a website, PFA Status, listing all the eateries that have been raided by the PFA. The website also mentions what action has been taken by the authority against a restaurant: whether it's been sealed, cleared or fined. According to APP, the PFA has so far conducted over 6,000 raids and issued improvement notices to about 3,000 food factories and eateries.

But what exactly is the PFA and why has it suddenly gained immense popularity and what measures, if any, were being taken before it started acting?

Inside the belly of the Punjab Food Authority

An introduction on the authority’s website states: "The Punjab Food Authority has been established under the “Punjab Food Authority Act 2011” to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption. The basic purpose is to lay out standards for food articles and to regulate their manufacturing, storage, distribution, sale and import."

Saqib Muneer, the PFA deputy director of operations, tells that earlier, the Punjab Pure Food Ordinance 1960 was being applied to restaurants and other eateries, but food inspectors weren’t experts in the field. Often they were only educated until matriculation or intermediate and did not have any food-related qualifications.

“Providing healthy, clean and hygienic food was the need of the hour and food needed to be produced as per certain standards. Therefore, the Punjab government promulgated the Punjab Food Authority Act, 2011 under which the PFA was notified on July 2, 2011 in Lahore district only. This act included the rules of the Punjab Pure Food Rule 2011. The basic idea was to hire experts with a background in food and the qualification criteria was an MSc in Food Science and Technology that deals in all kinds of food, juices, beverages, milk, meat, poultry etc.,” he adds.

The current crop of officers in the PFA are well-qualified, Muneer claims, and comes from educational institutes such as University of Agriculture Faisalabad, University of Arid Agriculture, Rawalpindi, University of Sargodha and a university in Multan.

The PFA has recently incorporated into the law a grading system through which certificates will be issued to restaurants mentioning the grades they fall into. Eateries will be required to display these notices on their entrances.

The PFA plans to start double shifts in the city; however, it is currently facing a staff shortage and has only 24 people in its operations department in Lahore. The authority has recently incorporated into the law a grading system through which certificates will be issued to restaurants mentioning the grades they fall into, and eateries will be required to display these notices on their entrances. Failing to do so will be considered a crime.

“The certificates will mention if a restaurant falls in the A category, B, C or D. This grading will also be displayed on our website. Basically, we’re doing all this to promote tourism, so a visitor knows where to go and competition develops,” Muneer explains.

While the PFA’s work is commendable, questions do arise: what prompted the authority's sudden call to arms?

The need for a new law and stricter standards

“This was just the right time to take action against adulterated food and provide safe and hygienic food, in line with the chief minister’s vision. In the near future, we are expanding the scope of operations to Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sargodha, Multan, Bahawalpur, Sialkot and a special set-up in Murree,” says Muneer.

A similar model is being replicated in other cities such as Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar where the district administration is doing the job Ayesha Mumtaz and her peers are doing here in Lahore. In fact, the Peshawar administration has already cracked down on popular foreign food chains Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut for “selling expired food items”, while Faisalabad authorities have also intensified their crackdown.

Some people have questioned how the PFA decides which eatery to fine – and how much, and which to seal and what to seize.

“This power rests with our food safety officers. They can decide all this based on our SOPs. A restaurant visited for the first time and found violating our SOPs will be issued an improvement notice or slapped with a fine or if the situation is visibly poor then sealed. Food safety officers are empowered to slap a fine of at least Rs25,000 on the spot. This is all decided on the basis of our SOPs. Our fully qualified raiding team consists of a food safety officer accompanied by assistants and helpers,” Muneer says.

Changes in the current law – now called The Food Authority Amendment Ordinance, 2015 – include strict punishments for producing and selling unhygienic food, making such acts cognizable, non-bailable offences. The amendments also introduce special food courts for the first time in the province to try cases on a summary basis.

“Our laws and SOPs are clearly defined, but no one admits their mistakes. We have held awareness seminars. We have been telling restaurant owners on and off about maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. We have even seen educated businessmen not keeping soaps in their washrooms for workers,” Muneer says.

However, restaurateur and Lahore Restaurant Association (LRA) board member Kamran Sheikh has another story to tell.

He claims restaurant owners were never communicated the law or the SOPs since they were formed. “We didn’t know when this law was promulgated. There was no communication. They’ve now made it a non-bailable offence; soon they’ll hang you. But before you’re hanged, don’t you think you have a right to know why you’re being hanged? Now that the LRA is functional since a few months, we want to train restaurant-wallahs, we want to implement our own standards and not the PFA ones,” he adds.

Sheikh says he'll never allow this grading to happen.

“It’s not the government’s business to tell you or me or my customer how my décor is and how tasty my food is. Their business is to check hygiene and cleanliness and give me a certificate for that,” he says.

This is war: the PFA and the restaurant owners face off

While Ayesha Mumtaz and the PFA have been hailed as saviours by consumers and found themselves hundreds of fans in the process, they have met with expected criticism from owners of establishments raided/visited by the authority, under the aegis of the LRA, a body representing around 200 General Sales Tax-paying restaurants.

This body was formed years ago, but started functioning properly only a couple of months ago.

Sheikh says the PFA has been acting subjectively; he says the authority's definition of cleanliness could be different from someone else’s.

Sheikh also disagrees with how photographs of substandard eateries are splashed all over the internet. He also alleges the food authority has been acting selectively by only highlighting the bad while there have been some restaurants that were checked and found satisfactory.

"What’s with the terrorism?" says Lahore Restaurant Association (LRA) board member Kamran Sheikh. "They [the PFA] don’t tell people where they’re wrong. If you argue, you’re humiliated and abused."

"A little bit of rust on my door or fridge has nothing to do with cleanliness. If my fridge isn’t brand new, it doesn’t make it unhygienic," he says. "In Lahore Cafeteria, cooked food was kept with frozen food, over which it was fined. How’s that wrong? Does that not happen at home? And then they [PFA] treat you like sh*t. What’s with the terrorism? They don’t tell people where they’re wrong. If you argue, you’re humiliated and abused,” he claims.

Ahmed Shafiq, the general secretary of the LRA, agrees with Sheikh's views about how the PFA is operating.

“Ideally, they should take samples, wait for a report, then convict someone," he says. "But no one knows what becomes of the samples because restaurants are sealed much before reports are issued, their photos taken and uploaded on social media. PFA’s food safety officers are qualified, but not to check restaurants. Kitchen hygiene is not taught to them. Also, they don’t have a single person from the food industry in their board or committee. They should make an internal body for recommendations with people from different categories of restaurants and hotels so they understand this business and industry,” Shafiq adds.

“Where the situation is serious, for example, if workers go to the washroom where there is no soap and touch food with dirty hands, do you think we should let them get away with this?" shoots back PFA's Saqib Muneer

But Muneer of the PFA clearly says his staff and other officials are qualified and have the knowledge to deal with all food-related issues: “They understand everything. It’s been three years and it’s not possible that they don’t understand things even now. If the restaurant owners had enough understanding, the PFA would not be needed in the first place.”

As per recent ordinances passed, punishment for large-scale manufacturers found selling substandard food is up to five-year imprisonment that will be not less than six months, and a fine up to Rs2 million that will be not less than Rs500,000. Sale of substandard, ‘misbranded’ or adulterated food calls for up to six-month imprisonment not less than a month and a fine up to Rs1 million not less than Rs100,000. The same punishment is for manufacturing and selling food that does not harm a consumer. If it does, the punishment goes up to three-year imprisonment, which is not less than three months, and fine up to Rs1 million which will not be less than Rs100,000. And if the food kills someone, the punishment is life imprisonment that will not be less than 10 years and fine up to Rs3 million not be less than Rs2 million.

Rubbishing some recent media reports that some sealed restaurants were de-sealed before their alloted duration expired, Muneer said it depends on how quick improvements are made and PFA instructions followed. "This is all done according to our SOPs," he says. "Initially we used to seal an eatery for four days, then changed it to a week. But if a business owner de-seals his outlet himself defying orders, then the establishment is sealed again, and an FIR filed against that person."

For parties who are interested, Muneer says the PFA’s decision can be challenged in an appellate court within the authority that will look into all issues. “If our decision is challenged in our appellate court, we sit a person down, show him/her pictures and all the evidence. This can also be done through courts that refer to us a matter,” he explained.

Muneer clarifies that the PFA has database detailing which restaurant has been issued how many improvement notices or fined how many times. An improvement notice clearly mentions why it is being issued and what improvements need to be made. When a fine is slapped, the section is mentioned and all details provided.

“Where the situation is serious, for example, if workers go to the washroom where there is no soap and they come back and touch food with dirty hands, do you think we should let them get away with this? Shall we wait for people to die and then seal such places? We conduct repeated visits and if in a second visit a mistake is repeated, then it is sealed,” he adds.

The final word: is the PFA a force for good?

With the food service industry being a lucrative endeavour, it's clear that there's a lot of money is at stake where restaurant closures are concerned.

So what’s the solution and how can an agreement between the PFA and restaurant owners be reached? LRA members Sheikh and Shafiq, representing restaurants, say they had proposed meetings with PFA officials several times, in order to chart out mutually agreeable SOPs that could then be communicated to all restaurant owners.

“We went to the PFA earlier to chart out procedures, and spoke to then Director General Asad Hisammani, and said that we’ll help them bridge the gap with restaurants and hotels. But they didn’t listen to us because there was no thrill in this. The director general got changed and the new one put it all aside. Now they don’t need to listen to us as they’re getting all the hype. It’s just political mileage. Smaller outlets would have also benefited from this [collaboration proposed above]. They have illiterate staff; their issues are different from ours. Their definition of cleanliness and hygiene is very different,’ Shafiq claimed.

Sheikh added: “A middle ground could be that we sit together and come up with an acceptable solution for them and us. It must be workable, not fantastical. Come up with a short training programme; get all of us involved. High-headedness won’t help. Customers are not being shown the other side of the picture; they don’t know the reality on ground.”

Both restaurant representatives said they had presented a list of suggestions to the PFA that they wanted to work on together. The suggestions included proper categorisation and classification of restaurants, clarity on the role and powers of food safety officers, information about licencing processes and procedures, information about inspection criteria, set rules for workplace hygiene and representation from restaurant professionals in order to ensure procedural understanding of SOPs, among others.

Nadeem Ahmed, the owner of Nadeem Tikka and Chandni Chowk, claims the PFA team visited his establishment before the restaurant opened its doors to the public. He said one can't expect a closed restaurant to be spick and span.

We have lost 80 percent of the business,” says the owner of Nadeem Tikka, which was raided by the PFA

“During operations, you can’t clean at every step because we have to serve our customers. Cleaning begins right after operations. When the place was raided, there was wastage, fat in the butchery and cold storage. We keep it for making soap and it wasn’t removed because the cleaner hadn’t come in yet. Even at home, you keep the leftover food in refrigerators. I admit it’s wrong, we’re guilty. But sealing is no solution. Our 30-year-old business and image is shattered locally and internationally. Even if we improve, the lost respect can’t be won back. Now we’re scared. We don’t know what else to do. We have lost 80 percent of the business,” he says.

Ahmed suggests corrective measures instead of affecting someone’s business through sealing and closures. “However big a mistake, the first thing to do is take corrective measures. Restaurants should be checked, fined heavily, warned, but not sealed. Seal if measures are not taken despite warnings.”

He also claims he was unaware of the food authority law or SOPs. “Now they’ve [the PFA] given us a paper. No restaurant knows about these laws. Tell people, educate them. If I’ve invested millions in a business and employed staff, would I want to sell substandard food? This is my bread and butter.”

A senior manager at an international fast food chain, requesting anonymity, says his franchise was sealed for a week but their lawyer said he’d get it de-sealed soon. They got court orders from a senior civil judge and on insistence from the lawyer opened it themselves even though the owners were scared. “The food authority officials came and said the court order was referred to the PFA and that the restaurant shouldn’t have been opened on its own and then they sealed it again. The restaurant was sealed for 17 days that affected the business drastically,” he says.

The manager claims his restaurant was sealed for a very minor infraction: a batch of stale cabbage. He says there he has no recourse to contest the PFA's decisions. “Our image has been tainted internationally. There’s no justice here; no corrective measures. Anyone with a little bit of authority can do anything. Our business has been virtually destroyed but we’re silent,” he says.

People frequenting restaurants and café were also asked what they thought of the food authority’s activities and if they ever visited an eatery that had been fined or sealed.

In all this, customers have mixed opinions.

Usman Hassan, a communication designer, said that even though the PFA has been taking severe measures,“I believe their actions are praiseworthy and much needed for Pakistan, considering there is no check and balance on the food people are consuming. I hope the penalties really make a difference and all restaurateurs and hoteliers heed the PFA’s standards and maintain them”.

A private business owner, Kashif Hassan, had a similar take. “I have been to the restaurants that have been fined. I think these raids will greatly help, provided the restaurants are monitored consistently. The way PFA is dealing with the restaurants is absolutely fair.”

A lecturer at a private university, Misha Saleem, who frequently eats out, says: “I like clean food, without hair or cockroaches. So PFA’s work is justified. However, I am not convinced by their actions of fining and letting the restaurant function again. One-day fines or punishments do not work; punishments should be such that it discourages restaurant owners from working in not-so-clean conditions.”

So while the PFA expands its scope to other cities, restaurant owners and the food authority have yet to agree to rules that suit both.

In the meantime, the authority continues to conduct raids and inspect eateries to assess quality standards. Every few days new pictures emerge of a cafe or dhaba that's deemed unsanitary.

In the messy world of eating out, it remains to be seen who will benefit most from this new crackdown.