What We Eat?

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Ever thought what goes into the making of food we eat at restaurants and fast-food joints? A quick look at stocks these eateries get from outside and a rotten world comes to fore. Saima Bhat reports 

Whenever Sana, 28, goes out with her friends, she makes it a point to avoid eating at any restaurant or fast food outlet. Reason: her immune system is weak, as she cannot digest outside food at all. “I get severe infection if I take even a single bite outside,” says Sana.

A few days back, outside a fast food joint in Sanat Nagar, while Sana’s friends eat Shawarmas, roasted fish and cold drinks, she simply looked on. Later that night none of Sana’s friends could have dinner because of stomach aches. “You are never sure what these fast food joints actually serve you,” says Sana.

In last one decade over three dozen fast food joined opened in and around Srinagar city alone. “It is a new trend to eat out,” says Sana.

However, the most frequented eateries in Srinagar are located at Khayam Chowk.

Interestingly, till a few years back, the same Khayam Chowk market was considered a hangout place for ‘uncivilised people’ only. “This place was mostly frequented by movie goers and drunkards back then,” recalls Majid Khan, a movie buff of yesteryears. “There were a few barbeque shops outside the Khayam cinema as well.”

Haji Ghulam Hassan, who is in his early seventies, still recalls how his father used to beat him for visiting Khayam Chowk.

In 1989, after militants ordered shutdown of all cinema halls in Kashmir, Khayam and it’s surrounding areas fell into obscurity. However, in last few years Khayam rediscovered itself, and once people started thronging this place for barbeques.

Off late a number of shops in Khayam, mostly owned by non-natives, are selling chicken and fish as well.

But despite the rediscovery of Khayam as one of the favourite hangout places for families, nobody has ever tried to see what they sell. Or the food served there is at least healthy and hygienic?

In March 2017, a team of veterinarians from state’s Animal Husbandry Department, was tasked to check what is served at fast food outlets and restaurants in Srinagar.

Headed by Dr Altaf Gilani the team raided eateries in Chattabal, Khanyar, Khayam and Sanat Nagar areas and destroyed 300 kgs of dressed chicken. “These dressed chickens are slaughtered and packed outside Kashmir and then sent here in packets. Nobody knows how they slaughter these birds,” said Dr Gilani.

The team had apprehensions that these dressed chickens were in fact diseased birds which were slaughtered and then packed for Kashmir markets. The deals who import these dressed chicken failed to produce valid documents for chicken. However, dealers had bills for sea foods like fish etc. “These chickens are mostly brought here illegally to avoid toll tax. And when chickens are slaughtered in bulk one must produce halal certificates as well,” said Gilani.

Veer, a small bridge in Chattabal known as fish market, large thermocol boxed wait for a pickup truck to come back. The truck would collect these empty boxes and unload boxes full of fish.

“They don’t carry just transport fishes but chicken as well. Technically fish and chicken can’t be handled together,” said Dr Gilani.

Interestingly, traders import dressed chickens to Kashmir by labelling the boxes as fish. “Even these boxes aren’t safe. They are unhygienic,” said Dr Gilani.

Ideally, eatables like fish and chicken should be transported in refrigerated vans with minus 18 degrees temperature. But local traders chill them rather than freeze the meat items, as desired. “They transport these items in normal trucks instead.”

In winters, as trucks carrying meat products get stranded in Srinagar-Jammu highway, they turn stale. In summer, while the road is clear, and trucks take less time to reach Kashmir, the hot temperature outside valley could turn meat items stale in transit.

PS Bali, Joint Director, Fisheries Department, said, “Fishes imported in thermocol boxes are safe for consumption as long as they are not stale.”

Same is the case with other poultry items like eggs. Dr Gilani calls these eggs ‘white tsunamis’ as most of these are unhealthy and stale. “In mainland India mercury touches 48 degrees quite often. So, by the time eggs reach Kashmir they are already stale and unhealthy for consumption,” feels Dr Gilani.

The market check is done under Animal Disease Control Act, SVC 2006. “We work under the same act,” said Dr Gilani, who believes they should be empowered to check all poultry and livestock items. “Earlier Srinagar municipality used to do market checking on their own.”

Supporting his argument Dr Gilani claims that only veterinarians have technology to check safety of live stocks. “This should have been handed over to us long back,” he rues.

However, the sale of stale dressed chicken and other eatables are not confined to fast food outlets and restaurants only, small kiosks too sell it in some part of the city.

Most of the chickens sold as broiler chicken are actually those parent chickens who suffer from muscular hemorrhage which leads to infection. Fast food joints and restaurants purchase dressed chickens since it is much cheaper than the broiler chicken. “These chickens are surrounded by a lace of slime as they are not stored in a proper cold chain,” Dr Gilani said.

Over last few years the sale of packed food items like kebabs has increased manifolds. “Other than dressed chickens, layered chicken, packed chicken and fish kebabs are unsafe too,” said Gilani. “Most of these kebabs manufacturers use food colour to make their product look attractive. The same colour is used in Biryanis too.”

The Food Control Organization of Kashmir also suspects that the kebabs may be possessing carcinogenic content.

“They are not packed in food grade polythene. It is highly dangerous as non-food-grade polythene used for edibles can cause cancer.”

Dr S Muhammad Salim Khan, head of social and preventive medicines (SPM) department, says, “One packet of ten kebabs is sold at Rs 200 which is much lesser than the market rate. It automatically raises suspicion.”

The dyes that are used for adding colour to food: erythrosine for adding red colour, which stands banned since 1999 in USA, for causing cancer in animal and tartrazine for yellow colour that is responsible for hyper sensitive behaviour in kids and adrenal tumours in animals. “And these dyes are still used here,” claims Dr Saleem. “I am even apprehensive about preservatives used in packed food items as there is no mention of such chemicals.”

Besides, unsealed food items are exposed to environment, pollution, preservatives, colouring dyes and then oil.

“After heating oil it doesn’t remain edible, but they keep on frying eatables in it till it becomes like a dark coal and thick, making it more carcinogenic,” said Dr Saleem.

In most of the food poisoning cases, the infection starts from the food handler. “Most of the diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid are caused because of it.”

In an ideal situation those who prepare food at restaurants and other outlets should use proper uniform, and not allowed to come in direct contact with the food.

Earlier slaughtering of animals was done at government designated places, where SMC officials would stamp the livestock after proper check. “Now almost every butcher has a mini slaughter house at his home,” said Dr Saleem.

There is no way to check the age and condition of a livestock before it is slaughtered for consumption.

“Even chicken are slaughtered on the roadsides. The waste is then thrown into rivers, water bodies etc. increasing the contamination and canine population,” says Dr Saleem.

Every year Kashmir consumes around five crore chickens, which means at least three crore kgs of chicken skin ends up on the roads and in water bodies.

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