What are the rights of consumers and who ensures that they are protected and safeguarded? This is what people are asking in the light of a spate of unclean and unsafe food being dished out to consumers not only from small eating houses and star-class hotels but also so-called trusted food manufacturers. It was a [...]


Round and round with roach legs in lamprais

What can people do if they are served dirty food?

What are the rights of consumers and who ensures that they are protected and safeguarded?
This is what people are asking in the light of a spate of unclean and unsafe food being dished out to consumers not only from small eating houses and star-class hotels but also so-called trusted food manufacturers.

The Lamprais that Samanthi bought. Inset shows cockroach legs in the midst of rice. Pic M. A. Pushpakumara

It was a busy Sunday for Samanthi Colonne. There was no time to cook and instead of buying two packets of buth (rice) from a small boutique up the road from where she lives at Pepiliyana, she paid Rs. 350 each for two packets of lamprais from the central kitchen and outlet of Green Cabin on Pepiliyana Road.

For Samanthi, though, the Sunday (June 14) lamprais was an eye-opener. Wrapped up well in a banana-leaf, in addition to the usual ingredients of rice, piece of chicken, cutlet, fried alu-kesel (ash plantain), seeni-sambol and umbalakada (maldive fish) sambol, there was something else.

“Standing out against the rice was something long and brown,” she says in disgust.
Clearly-visible cockroach legs!
Feeling sick, she wondered what to do. It was Sunday, so she photographed the lamprais, roach legs and all, and put the packet into the fridge. Getting prints of the photographs and with the offending lamprais in hand, she went to the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) in Colombo 2 and later to the office of the Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) of the Pepiliyana area, which comes under the Maharagama Urban Council (UC).

The runaround began then. As the Director-General (DG) of the CAA was not in, Samanthi had been instructed to “ekata yanna” and on reaching the first floor, “dekata yanna”, finally meeting an officer whose immediate reaction on being shown the lamprais packet had been “oken wedak ne, apita test karanna vidihak ne” (“there is no point in this as we can’t test it”). Next she had been told to make a complaint and “we’ll check it”, after which a form had been handed over to her, with the officer going off to a meeting.

When she asked him what could be done with regard to her complaint, the officer’s alleged reply had been: “We’ll call them (Green Cabin) and hold a discussion”. Ultimately it had been to someone else that Samanthi handed over the form and the photographs, for which no reference number had been issued, to indicate that a complaint had been lodged. She had been told by that person that she should wait 10 days and if the CAA did not contact her, give them a call.

Samanthi’s next stop had been as futile and frustrating as that of the CAA. Finding her way with difficulty to the office of the Maharagama PHIs, she had been told that the relevant PHI was not there at that time. No one else had been willing to give their names, while she related the incident. Later a PHI had called the relevant colleague and given Samanthi the phone. He had in turn informed her that the lamprais packet needed to be sealed, but he was at home and the next day he would be at a conference.

When she asked the other PHIs whether they could seal the packet, “they held muttered consultations among themselves, with one hostilely asking me ‘gedera thiyagena idala genne, usavi oppu karanna be’, to which I retorted whether I am supposed to eat the take-away lamprais on the road”. Then he had just given her a blank sheet of paper to write her complaint, without accepting the lamprais.

It was 4.35 p.m. when she laboriously wrote down her grievance on the sheet of paper. But the PHIs present had refused to accept it, asking her to hand over the paper to a minor employee, says Samanthi, reiterating that once again no reference number was issued.

Meanwhile, three days later (on June 18), Samanthi had got a call from the CAA officer to whom she had spoken before lodging her complaint on June 15. He had been at the Green Cabin general kitchen and told her that Green Cabin was accepting that there had been a lapse.

“Mista monavada karanne one” (“What would you like done?”), the CAA officer had asked her. Getting the distinct feeling that they were attempting to come to a “settlement”, Samanthi had been categorical. She was not interested in getting money from Green Cabin or free food. She wanted an assurance and concrete action to prevent such unclean food being served to others in the future.

Samanthi’s lament now is: “What recourse does an aggrieved consumer have?” Meanwhile, CAA sources said that sometimes when individuals lodged complaints and the CAA took them up in court, the lawyers of the food companies alleged that the contaminants had been introduced by the complainants and the cases were dismissed. This was a major problem faced by the Complaints Unit of the CAA.

Every month, the CAA files about 20 cases on complaints lodged with it directly by consumers, while more than 100 cases are filed after raids by the CAA itself, it is learnt. Clarifying that when the complaint about the cockroach issue had been lodged with the CAA, a reference number should have been issued, the source said that complaints could also be made on the CAA’s hotline 1977.

When contacted, the Maharagama MOH Dr. J.M. Gunatilake requested the Sunday Times to come to his office next week to have a discussion on this issue with the relevant PHI.

Green Cabin accepts responsibility
We have accepted responsibility and apologised, said Managing Director Chanaka Rodrigo of Cyril Rodrigo Restaurants, under which comes Green Cabin, when contacted by the Sunday Times about the roach-legs-in-food incident.Confirming that the CAA had visited and inspected the kitchen after the complaint, he said that his company carries out pest control regularly and every effort is made to eradicate pests. Sometimes in spite of all these precautions there can be a “miss”.
“These are the hazards of the food trade that we try to overcome every step of the way,’ said Mr. Rodrigo.

Stressing that they abide by all the instructions issued to them by the PHI, he cited the example of installing fly-mesh after an inspection. “We also keep telling our staff about the need to strictly adhere to standards,” he added.

Food industry has outgrown the Food Act
The implementation of the provisions of the Food Act No. 26 of 1980 at ground level is handled by the network of Medical Officers of Health (MOHs), under whom are Food and Drug Inspectors and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs), it is learnt.However, the system is not without issues and challenges, points out the Health Ministry’s Deputy Director of Environmental and Occupational Health, Dr. H.D.B. Herath, under whom falls the Food Control Unit.A major issue is that the food industry has grown over the years and is huge now, along with technological advances, while consumer expectations have also changed, but there is a dearth of staff who are expected to implement the Food Act at ground level, the Sunday Times learns.

The Food Act is the main piece of legislation that governs food safety and ensures that food is fit for human consumption and that no food harmful to the health is sold to the people. It is supported by regulations, guidelines and procedures laid down from time to time.

However, the Food Act is confined to ‘food safety’ aspects, but the emerging issues go beyond its mandate. “The challenge is to meet these challenges,” says Dr. Herath, citing the example of the Hygiene Regulations coming from the 1980s being revised in 2011 to cover new developments and fit the standards of a middle-income country.

Now with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) being at the fore, there is a need to look at the use of salt and sugar in food. Therefore, the Health Ministry’s mandate is not only to ensure that food is safe but also to keep people healthy by maintaining standards which will not take people down the NCD pathway.

Detailing how the Food Act is implemented, Dr. Herath says that the Director-General (DG) of Health Services is the Chief Food Authority. Under him comes other ‘Food Authorities’.In respect of specific types of food such as imported food (until released from Customs), the DG of Customs is the Food Authority, with the support of Food and Drug Inspectors of the Health Ministry and for a small quantity of excisable food which includes alcoholic beverages, the Food Authority is the Commissioner of Excise.

The other Food Authorities are those who have ‘a geographical area of jurisdiction’. The Municipal Councils act directly as the Food Authorities with the technical aspects being looked after the Chief MOHs and their teams of PHIs. The second category of Food Authorities who have ‘a geographical area of jurisdiction’ is properly constituted local government bodies which are the Urban Councils and the Pradeshiya Sabhas. If there is no properly constituted body the task is handled by the MOH and staff.

Then there is the network of approved analysts who provide laboratory support in testing samples – the chief of whom is the Government Analyst. The other additional analysts are the City Analyst of Colombo and the Food Laboratories in Anuradhapura and Kalutara as well as the Medical Research Institute.

Meanwhile, the Food Advisory Committee, a statutory body established under the Food Act, advises on policy issues.

Lanka lacks national policy on consumer protection
The Food Act No. 26 of 1980, the Penal Code and the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Act of 2003 are the protection and safeguards that the consumers of Sri Lanka have. Or do they?
One of the objectives of the CAA “is to protect consumers against the marketing of ‘goods’ or the provision of services which are hazardous to the life and property of consumers”.‘Goods’, the Sunday Times understands, mean ‘any food, drink, pharmaceutical, fuel and all other merchandise’.
“We need a national policy on consumer protection and food safety to deal with both micro and macro issues,” reiterated President’s Counsel D.C. Jayasuriya who has studied this subject in-depth and also written the book titled ‘Guide to the Consumer Affairs Authority Act’.

A national policy is vital for both the Food Authority coming under the Health Ministry and the CAA coming under the Industry and Commerce Ministry to work together in a combined Task Force, suggests this consumer protection activist, pointing out that currently both institutions are bent on safeguarding their turf while also facing a major dearth of staff.

Under a combined Task Force, they can coordinate not only when issuing annual licences to food outlets but also when carrying out regular checks on outlets, ranging from boutiques to vans selling string-hoppers and larger restaurants and hotels, according to Dr. Jayasuriya. They could also widen their scope to cover environmental and hygienic aspects in this process.
Currently there is little coordination among the Health Ministry, the local authorities and the CAA, he says, adding that there is a need for a comprehensive policy with specific objectives and time-frames.

He points out that the CAA is also acting as just a “collection agency” with regard to fines imposed on such institutions. It collects the monies and then channels them to the government. The CAA should be allocated one-third of these monies for the expansion of staff and resources, while PHIs in local authorities should be paid better salaries to ensure that better standards are implemented with regard to food safety.

Consumer education and awareness are also important, says Dr. Jayasuriya, adding that it should be incorporated in the lessons imparted in schools, while making parents aware on the importance of healthy food. The food industry too should be mobilized to act more responsibly with regard to the addition of sugar and salt and also other safety aspects.

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