Doctors Blame Street Food for Surge in Ramadan Illnesses
JEDDAH, Sep 27: They’ve become so many that they’re literally a classic sight during Ramadan — peddlers at roadside bazaars offering up sweets, juices and liver sandwiches to famished passers-by who in turn feel that the bazaars are a convenient way of saving both effort and time in preparing food for the iftar (breakfast) and sahour (pre-dawn) meals. But what truly is the hidden cost that many consumers don’t see when they decide to purchase these readymade staples during the holy month?
Simply put the cost is their health, according to a number of doctors who say that consuming foods from open-air eateries located only meters from dusty, exhaust-filled streets is a dangerous risk and a gamble with one’s health.
Dr. Sobhia Mahmoud, a family practitioner at the New Jeddah Clinic Hospital, told Arab News: “Foods such as shawarma and those being sold out in the open are quite susceptible to bacteria with the worst offenders being Staphylococcus aureus, salmonella and e-coli, which are quite dangerous. I advise anyone eating out during Ramadan, or anytime for that matter, to do so in a closed, secluded atmosphere which is usually much more sanitary.”
She added that since Ramadan began there have been a noticeable amount of cases of gastritis, inflammation of the stomach lining, as well as some extreme cases due to eating unhygienic food.
To get a grasp on just how serious the problem is, Arab News toured Jeddah’s roadside eateries from the downtown Balad district to the north of the city, dropping in for visits at periodic times over a number of days. During our inspections we saw and photographed several food servers and venue owners touching food and wrapping it up for sale with their bare hands. We even caught some servers tending to wiping their noses and touching their faces while continuing to distribute food into containers for sale. Not to mention the swarm of flies and other insects occasionally landing for a quick bite.
When asked the reason for not following more hygienic methods of food handling, a venue operator angrily shouted slurs. “Do you want to ruin my business?” and began chasing our photographer.
A woman who was serving up pancakes by hand was also questioned. She only smiled and got up and walked away.
In recent months officials in Madinah and Makkah have been cracking down on unsanitary and usually illegal food operations. Madinah officials recently closed down a restaurant after 23 diners fell ill from consuming salmonella-tainted food, which was linked by investigators to the fingernails of a worker at the restaurant.
Makkah officials also recently shut down a warehouse full of rotten fish and meat in efforts to combat food-borne illnesses.
But the question that still remains is: What about Jeddah. Why have many outlets been blamed for being unhygienic and that too in one of the Kingdom’s largest cities? According to statistics from Cure Research, an independent research organization, Saudi Arabia had reported 132,773 cases of food poisoning in 2005 with the actual number likely to be much higher.
And it’s not just adults who have fallen ill. Dr. Sabri Tantawi, a pediatrician at Tarek Bin Laden Clinic in Al-Mushrefah district of Jeddah, said he has been witnessing an increase in cases of children who have become sick from contaminated food.
“Since the start of Ramadan I have had 10-15 cases of food-borne illnesses with the majority of patients coming in through the Emergency Room,” Tantawi said.
Commenting on the reason for the slow progress in ridding the city of roadside vendors, a municipality official told Arab News that the municipality itself has set forth strict guidelines on the operation of restaurants and has been cracking down on roadside vendors. “But the problem is when the municipality removes a vendor from the road and confiscates the contaminated food, the very next day there is another vendor in the very same place selling another food item,” he said.
The official added that this is what makes the progress non-existent and seem as if the municipality does nothing to contain the problem. “It is quite the contrary,” he said.