Cooked rice and meat items found in the refrigerator without labels. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) has closed down an unlicensed catering unit at Al Jaber Group's labour accommodation in Madinat Zayed in the Western Region, following an incident of food poisoning which affected 243 labourers.

The authority also charged the unit with food safety violations, besides destroying 675kg of cooked rice kept in unsafe conditions for more than four hours, said a statement issued by ADFCA.

The ADFCA inspectors also took samples of all the cooked food items found in the catering unit which was supplying food to about 2,200 workers without ADFCA's licence and certificate.

Out of 243 labourers who were treated by Madinat Zayed Hospital for illnesses apparently caused by food poisoning [which has not yet been confirmed but tests continue] all were released except for 10 who remain hospitalised with one among them in the ICU, according to a statement issued by Abu Dhabi Health Services Company PJSC (SEHA).

About 124 were treated at the hospital, 119 at the accommodation and 44 were admitted for further observation and treatment, one with a severe reaction on Saturday, SEHA said.

Al Jaber Group said in a statement: "The safety of our staff is our utmost priority and we are deeply saddened to report that 117 workers have been reported suffering symptoms of food poisoning, at the Habshan Labour accommodation in the Western Region." The Group has ensured that all those affected are receiving appropriate treatment and is attempting to isolate the source of the problem.

"To ensure the safety and health of our staff, we have made alternative arrangements for their meals whilst we continue to work to identify the source of this problem. In more than two decades of operation, and serving 150,000 meals a day all over the UAE, this is the first instance of food poisoning at any of our accommodations," the statement explained.

ADFCA said its inspectors found the catering unit was functioning in utterly squalid conditions, violating all hygiene norms and ignoring the health consequences for the labourers.

Mohammad Jalal Al Reyaysa, Director of Communications and Community Service at ADFCA, said: "We want to assure the public that the people behind this disaster will not go unpunished. The utter disregard for the law of the land evident in running an unlicensed catering unit in violation of all the rules and regulations is shocking."

Al Reyaysa added that the test results of the food samples taken from the site are still awaited.

To the shock of the inspectors who visited the site on hearing about the incident, they found cockroaches inside the drinking water dispensers, food materials stored in unacceptable temperatures and mixing of raw meat, fish and vegetables, besides a cooking range with traces of meat inside. Cooked food was being kept in conditions conducive to quick rotting, in close proximity to unwashed utensils and open dustbins.

The design of the cooking area also violated the standards and specifications prevalent in Abu Dhabi.

Al Reyaysa said the Authority would not condone callous approaches to public health and safety. "Nobody is allowed to cater food without specific licences and permission for the purpose. Adherence to the food safety rules and regulations in force in the emirate is a must for all," he said.

With inputs from Dina El Shammaa, Abu Dhabi Deputy Editor, and Himendra Kumar, Staff Reporter