Careless food handles carries health risks

Unwashed hands, dirty counter tops and summer heat can turn food you eat every day into poison and a fractured, under-funded inspection system is not protecting you.
Foto: CIN

By The Center for Investigative Reporting

Twenty-year-old Arman Bejtula hasn’t forgotten the chicken with mayonnaise sandwich he ate at the Sarajevo restaurant-pizzeria Impuls in 2003. The next day, he ended up in a clinic where he stayed for more than a month with salmonella poisoning.

Now, whenever he eats out, he asks waiters to hold the mayo.

As he talks about the fever, vomiting, weakness, diarrhea and painful bowel examinations he endured, he still wonders how it was possible to get poisoned by food from an immaculately clean restaurant with a good reputation, thanks to its salads and chicken dishes. But 14 other Impuls diners between Sept. 13-15, 2003, also ended up in clinics.

Every time you bite into food from restaurants or fast-food shops, even into home-cooked food made from ingredients bought fresh in markets, butcher shops and grocery stores, you risk the same kind of illness that struck these people.

Between May and July, reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) submitted 95 samples of food purchased from restaurant, markets and vendors in Sarajevo, Mostar and Banja Luka to the Veterinary School in Sarajevo for bacterial analysis.

It showed that just about half the samples, or 47, contained unacceptably high numbers of microbes or they contained at least one of the sentinel bacteria for food poisoning or food spoilage.

Proteus, an organism that does not induce symptoms in humans but which indicates the presence of fecal material in food, was found in 27 samples. E. coli, fecal contamination that can make people sick, was found in 26 samples.

The analysis also found lipolytic bacteria in two of the five products tested for it. These bacteria also cause no symptoms, but they can make butter and other high-milkfat foods taste funny. They indicate that the food has been kept too long or stored improperly.

Davor Alagić, senior assistant with the Department of Food Hygiene and Technology at the Veterinary School who oversaw the analysis for CIN, said the findings of proteus and E. coli, and high numbers of bacteria in 23 samples, all indicate that food handlers are not paying enough attention to the cleanliness of their hands, utensils, equipment and the premises where they prepare and sell food.

The CIN experiment, he said, demonstrates ‘a lack of respect for minimum hygienic principles.’

Doing it right

Zijo Međuseljac’s Brasil passed CIN’s experiment and his chicken burger was analyzed as safe. That is no accident. The restaurateur said 10 years of experience have shown him how hard it is to keep a place that serves the public sanitary and clean.

He stocks two disinfectants. His four kitchen workers must wash their hands in it before work, and all work surfaces are treated in the morning and twice more during the day. Knives are washed in acetic acid.

Međuseljac said he runs a professional kitchen that customers are welcome to visit. Products are all refrigerated, and he buys fresh not frozen ingredients. His cooks wear uniforms that include aprons and gloves.

Sanitary inspectors in Sarajevo and representatives of Blue Sphere, a consumer protection group in Banja Luka, both told CIN reporters that it is not uncommon to find products stored haphazardly and on floors in small shops and markets in violation of hygiene rules. Refrigerators that do not work well or that are deliberately switched off are at least one cause of food spoiling, the inspectors said.

CIN staffers buying food for the experiment found two refrigerators at one popular Ferhadija café set at widely different temperatures. In one cake shop, they were told the refrigerator was not working at the moment, and in a neighborhood grocery where yoghurt had soured even though its expiration date had not passed, a staffer found that the refrigerator was turned off after closing time at night. The clerk blamed the dairy for the curdled drink.

Sadija Hadžić and Ismet Lokmić, sanitary inspectors for the customs office in Sarajevo, said storage problems begin with the importation of food into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Inspectors, they said, do not have equipment used in Croatia and elsewhere in Europe that can measure the temperature of refrigerator trucks.

Drivers trying to sleep at night in their trucks frequently turn off refrigerator units that buzz and use up costly fuel, they said. Meat and other foods don’t defrost completely, but soften. The inspectors believe such products should be sent back to the country that shipped them.

Hadžić said that lack of equipment and communication also prevents inspectors from monitoring the sale of food items imported with a short shelf life.

Food with expiration dates just 15 days away are let in, he said, but there is little follow-up done with cantonal level inspectors. Who, he asked, can guarantee that two tons of chocolate due to expire in 15 days is actually sold on time or else discarded?

Hamdija Muratović, a sanitary inspector for the Srebrenik Municipality, said that two years ago inspectors tried unsuccessfully to enforce a rule that, for the sake of cleanliness, would have barred shops from displaying food outside. After a month, municipal leaders halted the effort with the excuse that the sales technique was just too widely practiced to stop.

‘Traditions’ said Hasan Džinić, Sarajevo Canton head veterinary inspector, ‘should be observed at home, not in shops.’

Consumers just have to look around to see danger signs, according to Muratović. It is an everyday occurrence to see vendors and shopkeepers without aprons or gloves not only handling meat and fruit at the same time, but making change for customers as well.

Indoor markets in his city and elsewhere provide vendors with counters and hot water, but not always with refrigerators.

Zdravko Miličević, the chief Republika Srpska market inspector, agreed: ‘Those traders are handling food with one hand and counting money with the other hand. There has to be disease.’

Inspections don’t catch enough

CIN research has also shown that authorities don’t do enough to protect citizens, often because of confusion over the responsibilities of each inspection office.

Sanitary, veterinary, market and municipal inspectors used to work together under one boss. Since the war, they work separately. They also don’t work closely now with doctors and police to stop traders and caterers who sell food that is not inspected.

‘Communication among the inspectors was much better before the war and all of them, regardless of their job, worked together’ says Dr. Ziba Vatrenjak, who was in charge of Sarajevo sanitary inspection then. ‘Now inspections are splintered. Everybody has their own boss. Such inspection cannot be efficient.’

She says there was a time when inspectors needed only 10 minutes to spring into action. Today, all four inspection unit bosses must coordinate schedules, staff and observations. Inspectors in Sarajevo Canton admit that though they all work on the same floor of the same building, they don’t exchange information and rarely go out on raids together.

‘I know of some grocery stores that inspectors have not checked to this day since the war’ says Džinić. Asked why, he replied that nobody in BiH knows how many outlets for food production and sales there are.

Bogoljub Antonić, manager of the Service for Health and Hygiene in the RS Institute for Health Protection, says law dating to the former Yugoslavia, orders inspectors to annually send to laboratories at least 15 samples of food and other products per 1,000 residents.

A Sarajevo Canton strategic health care plan for 2006-2015 includes a report showing that only 3 to 5 percent of food and products receive adequate quality control. It says only five or six lab tests per 1,000 residents are done annually.

Džinić said more than 3 million KM a year would be needed to enforce the law for the Sarajevo region, with its 400,000 residents.

Rifat Škrijelj, a biologist and former representative in the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, has been issuing warnings for four years about insufficient food control in BiH. He checks labels, expiration dates and veterinary stamps that guarantee healthiness and hygiene, but is still skeptical. ‘To this day, I am still worried every time I buy meat in the butcher shop’ he said.

Complaints and courts are little help

Together with other citizens sickened at Impuls, Bejtula’s mother, Emira Brajlović, did something other BiH citizens rarely do – they pressed charges against the restaurant owner.

‘I wanted to prevent the same thing happening tomorrow to some other child’ she said. Nearly three years later, the court case remains unresolved.

‘I am still disappointed with the agencies that were supposed to inspect Impuls’ says Sarajevo professor Ugo Vlajisavljević, another of the unlucky 2003 diners. ‘There is something wrong with the inspection system.’

Owner Munib Mihaljević recently closed Impuls for reasons unrelated to the poisoning. He still runs La Famiglia and Capri restaurants.

‘I don’t feel guilty’ Mihaljević said. He suggested that customers may have gotten sick because they did not wash their hands or because cheese he bought from the City Market was bad.

Osman Kapetanović, head of Sarajevo Canton Sanitary Inspection, said, ‘In the case of Impuls, we have no doubt. It was food poisoning.’

Citizens, he said, must warn each other that food poisonings in restaurants are not rare.

‘I was thinking about standing outside Impuls like a sandwich boy with a big sign’ said Vlajisavljević. ‘Here you will suffer the worst poisoning’ he wanted his sign to say. ‘You will lose your life.’

First published on August 12, 2006

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