A safe food supply is critical in the Middle East to ensure high quality public health, competitive food export markets, safe food imports and development of new growth industries such as tourism and biotechnology.

With Dubai positioning itself as one of the world's top tourist destinations, there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of visitors to the emirate in the past few years. This is reflected in the growth of the airline and hospitality industries. Today, Dubai has around 1,500 restaurants, 130 food-processing facilities, several food import and export establishments and some of the most talked-about hotels in the world. The emirate is also a preferred destination for hundreds of overseas professionals who have made it their second home because of tax-free incomes and rapid expansion of the region as a business and trading hub. In order to set high standards of health and hospitality, Dubai today has in place an excellent food supply system.

At the Dubai International Food Safety Conference in 2006, organised by the Public Health Department of Dubai Municipality, Dr. P Vincent Hegarty, Dean of the College of Food and Agriculture at UAE University, said: "A safe food supply is critical in the Middle East to ensure high quality public health, competitive food export markets, safe food imports and development of new growth industries such as tourism and biotechnology." According to Hegarty, "the UAE imports food from more than 90 countries, and food safety depends on government accountability and good manufacturing practice in food exporting countries, good inspection systems in the UAE and GCC, safe distribution, storage and sale of food and consumer awareness of food safety in the home, shops and restaurants."

Healthy food

The access to safe and healthy food is important all over the world. To ensure that food safety and quality management systems are in place in the hospitality industry, Dubai Municipality has now made it mandatory that all food establishments have the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in place. The HACCP food safety system analyses potential food hazards and identifies measures to control them. The hazard could be biological, such as a microbe; chemical, such as a toxin; or physical, such as ground glass or metal fragments. The HACCP system is based on the Codex Alimentarius System - a collection of internationally adopted food standards presented in a uniform manner.

Besides identifying and preventing hazards from contaminating food, HACCP is based on sound science; encourages documentation to allow investigators to see how well a firm is complying with food safety laws over a period, rather than on any given day; places responsibility for ensuring food safety appropriately on the food manufacturer or distributor; helps food companies compete more effectively in the world market; and reduces barriers to international trade. According to Al Mansouri, Director General of Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology, "the successful implementation of the HACCP system largely depends on understanding its implications and functions from all involved in the field of food production and inspection. Its efficiency also depends on creating a legislative framework that will empower inspection authorities to enforce its implementation during different food production stages."

Quality systems

In Dubai, the Shangri-La has been the first five-star hotel to achieve HACCP certification in recognition of its quality systems, which complies with the international standards of HACCP. "We managed to achieve this certification ahead of the Dubai Municipality deadline because of our well established group-wide Shangri-La Food Safety Management System," says Bernhard Haechler, area manager and general manager, Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai. The HACCP involves three major steps - the pre-requisite or support programme, HACCP implementation and HACCP certification - and takes approximately six to 12 months. According to Haechler, "Management commitment and involvement is a must, since food safety can risk being neglected due to the costs and the amount of paperwork involved."

Necessary changes

According to Alphonsa Sebastian, Area Food Safety and Hygiene Manager, UAE and Qatar, Intercontinental Hotels Group, "The Crowne Plaza in Dubai implemented the HACCP guidelines in 2005, the second five-star hotel in Dubai to be certified." According to Sebastian, the hotel has had to be refurbished to implement all necessary changes. "The layout of the receiving area, where all incoming raw materials are checked and screened, has been changed. Also we have made sure to have tie-ups with the right suppliers of raw meat, fish and poultry. Every process is documented, validated and samples of raw and cooked food are sent to the municipal laboratories for certification." Under HACCP guidelines, all food handlers in a hotel must receive basic food hygiene training. Supervisors are requested to receive intermediate food hygiene training, while executive chefs receive advanced level of training. "Where food safety regulations are concerned, the UAE is at par with international standards of safety," said Sebastian.

Peter Souri Raj, Operations Manager, Nando's UAE, said, "The Dubai Municipality does a great job of inspecting food establishments periodically. It has a very good system of assessing and rating them. Over the years they have raised the compliance bar and are constantly incorporating newer and better standard requirements in their licensing processes - from mandatory annual pest control contracts, to waste disposal and collection contracts, fire fighting equipment validation etc."

Safe food

"To implement HACCP you have to know your business well. We need to create a culture about safe food. Team leaders must be responsible to create that culture and properly train staff," says Daniel Kaeflein, Chief Steward of Fairmont Hotel.

"We are in the final stages of HACCP certification, and are setting procedures in place in the receiving area, storage methods, cooking, warm and cold holding," Kaeflein said.

With adequate staff training, recently activated technology like the Digitrax - RF (a wireless HACCP monitoring system that helps in eliminating human error when collecting critical temperature data) and structural changes in several restaurants and hotels, it is now only a matter of time before all of Dubai will be HACCP certified.