Dubai: Food is an integral part of Dubai’s economy and culture and it plays a major role in making the city a vibrant cultural melting pot of global citizens.
More than 300,000 people within the city help transport, store, prepare, cook, serve and deliver food to the doorsteps of consumers, according to Dubai Municipality’s Food Safety Department.
More than 200,000 food handlers prepare over three billion meals that are served to 20 million tourists and 3.3 million residents.
Now, the ‘My Food’ initiative is protecting nearly eight million tonnes of food and more than three billion meals annually consumed by residents and tourists.
‘My Food’ is the world’s first digital transformation journey by any regulatory authority to enhance food safety, Sultan Ali Al Taher, the director of the department told Gulf News.
“Our preventive approach to food safety involves ensuring that over 20,000 food businesses in the city produce safe food by having relevant permits prior to starting their operations, employ food handlers who are suitably trained and certified, and use food transportation vehicles that are safe and approved. ‘My Food’ initiative has digitalised the complete process of food permit management, training management and certification and food transportation vehicle safety management system. The fully-integrated and traceable system has not only reduced the burden of effort to obtain permits and certifications impacting more than 300,000 beneficiaries, but has also made data-driven decision-making effective,” said Al Taher.
Officials said the initiative provided an opportunity to empower the community to effectively participate in enhancing the compliance of food establishments with food safety regulations, the availability of food safety ratings for eateries and food item registration information via the Dubai Municipality smart application.
The feature on the Dubai Municipality app, that lets consumers check the food safety ratings, gives them the power to make informed choices about the safety and hygiene levels at food outlets.
Digitalised training management
All of the more than 200,000 food handlers in Dubai are formally trained on food safety and behaviour all the time, Al Taher added.
The food safety training management system involves comprehensive steps to approve a trainer, training centre, training material, training delivery, assessment of the trainee and certification process. Earlier, Al Taher said, the entire process was carried out manually through document verification and approval with all the information maintained in a paper-based system.
The transformation of this service includes creating digital identities for people, converting manual transactions into digital transactions, converting manual approvals to algorithm and rule-based automated transactions that can provide instant decisions, and creating digital contracts and certifications that are traceable.
“The initiative includes providing an e-learning platform that will eventually enable transition to a digital education programme for food safety. The data analytical system will be linked to the food inspection programme, which will allow the prevention of violations by predictive training,” he added.
The objective is to make sure that anyone working in the food industry gets direct information about anything related to food safety in Dubai, without having to undergo in-person classes. The course module is designed in such a way that training material is customised as per the requirements of specific food outlets or categories of food establishments.
If there is any new update on food import regulations, a training module can be instantly updated on the system. If there is any outbreak of egg-related salmonella infection, for instance, then there will be another training module that teaches restaurants on how to take precautions. Similarly, when an inspector reports a violation regarding pests on the premises, the restaurant will automatically get instructions on how to tackle the situation.
Digitalised food transportation system
More than 20,000 food vehicles and 15,000 bikes are on Dubai’s roads, transporting food. Each vehicle needs a food permit, which used to take up to ten hours for issuance, with a 12-step vehicle approval process managed by 12 different testing centres. “The permit now takes less than two hours, including the planning, driving and testing time using our digitalised Food Watch platform,” said Al Taher. “We issued a series of changes in process integration and offered a paperless system for the vehicle testing inspectors to approve the vehicles instantly,” he explained.
Another critical step towards boosting food safety was the change in the annual compliance verification model to a real-time compliance-monitoring model by enabling food businesses to report noncompliant vehicles instantly on the system. “Today, we can predict what vehicles need to be tested more and what brand of vehicles are prone to food temperature deviations — a true data-driven system.”
Digitalised food permit system
Dubai is the city of festivals and events, with more than 2,000 major events in a year that attract some of the best minds, artists, sportsmen and tourists. Food served at these events are approved by the Food Safety Department through social permits. These permits need to be issued quickly and yet the food safety requirements related to the design, menu and compliance history of the business must be considered before a permit is issued.
“A three-day process was completely disrupted with the permit approval taking up to four hours and several requirements modified to meet the objectives of the digital governance model. We reduced the steps while ensuring that every bit of data is captured.”
During the process of shifting to a digitalised system, he said the stakeholders were consulted at every step. “We also used an agile model for development of our programme to ensure that change and re-engineering are a part of the system. Focusing on increasing the digital literacy of users through campaigns and trainings were implemented, resulting in a steady increase in customer happiness by 96 per cent.”
With Dubai Municipality pioneering a digital transformation in the field of food safety in the world, Al Taher said other authorities are benchmarking Dubai’s programmes to create a happy and sustainable city. “We have achieved 100 per cent automation of services, 100 per cent reduction in service time, 61 per cent reduction in service steps, 62 per cent reduction in compliance cost of customers and 100 per cent reduction in paper documents. All these were with zero customer visits and a 52-tonne reduction in Co2 [carbon dioxide] emission.”
What DM customers say about smart permit system
Mustafa Kawtharani, senior quality assurance consultant at McDonald’s UAE, said: “Would like to take this opportunity to thank Dubai Municipality — Food Safety Department team for the continuous improvement and innovative ideas that make customers’ journey easy. Recent initiative that I personally experienced was the new smart permit system. It granted me the internal training approval within one day after completing the payment smoothly. We are looking forward to more such services.”
Abdul Salim, operations-in-charge, TSI Quality Services, said: “I would like to congratulate Dubai Municipality’s training permit team for introducing the new smart permit system. It helps to get training permit approval or renewal done automatically and instantly. It helps to have more control, is easy to access, takes less time in communication and, more importantly, has ‘all data in one place’.”
Humayun Afzal, environment, health and safety manager, Rotana, said: “After introducing the Food Watch platform that shifted paper-based to digital permits, DM has introduced auto-renewal of the smart permits, which is a step forward, whereby the Food Watch platform itself will renew the permit for a food safety trainer based on the updated CPD (continuing professional development) points submitted by the trainer and there will be no need for the trainer to apply for the smart permit manually. It will save time and will also promote efficacy and continuity since the trainers will have to submit their CPD points in real time and they will be more focused on obtaining CPD points by improving their food safety knowledge. This will reflect very positively on the overall food safety culture within the emirate of Dubai with increased productivity."
What customers say about food safety grading of eateries on DM app
Sahil Majeed, assistant manager, Health and Nutrition-SGS, said: “A quick scan of the DM app and you know if you are going to eat safe. The app is a great relief when you crave big time and you are not sure if it’s safe to eat in a restaurant that you have not tried. Surely, this drive will evoke a sense of competition among these establishments to continually improve their score and thereby hygiene. The level of confidence that this service can give us while organising food for parties, gatherings and events is simply priceless.”
Karen Casigay, food and safety trainer, Save Fast, said: “DM app serves as a one-stop-shop. But the features that interested me more are the barcode scanners and also the food safety ratings of restaurants. These features really give peace of mind to customers who want to ensure safety of the products they purchase and the food they consume. Those who really care about food safety can definitely check out this app before heading to any food outlet in Dubai to check if they follow the safety and hygiene rules based on their ratings.”