Trinidad and Tobago


Food for thought

July 11, 2001

TWICE during this past fortnight, rather unpleasant stories surfaced regarding the quality of food being served at two of this country’s leading hotels.

The morning after a high school graduation dinner held at the Hilton on June 29, guests reported in soft warm terms, details of severe digestive discomfort linked to the previous night's fare.

Some 50 guests at the St Joseph's Convent graduation dinner were affected by food poisoning. One man said his wife was forced to wear disposable diapers overnight and several persons were hospitalised. Hopefully, the yearbook pictures were taken before dinner, or some grimacing might show up in the photo.

To Hilton's credit, management swiftly agreed to pay medical bills for victims, although no one seemed certain about precisely what brought on such aggressive fermentation and in so short a time. Both Hilton and the Health Ministry began testing food samples. To date, no report has been made public.

Exactly one week later, staff at Crowne Plaza sportingly hunted German cockroaches during the coffee break at a media briefing, providing grotesque entertainment for those who lingered.

Evidently familiar with state-of-the-art bug extermination tactics, the uniformed waitress plucked two napkins from an artistic display on the table and chased the mischievous little vermin up an adjoining wall.

The table from which they emanated was laden with delicate breakfast fare, including Danish treats and dainty sandwiches with brightly coloured fillings but, no doubt hindered by a language barrier, no one in authority had lectured the German roaches on appropriate news conference protocols.

Normally nocturnal creatures, the roaches had obviously decided on a show of strength by parading in broad daylight.

A few jettisoned their bravado and scurried to safety after first assault from the napkin nemesis.

However, the more creative among them tarried awhile, choreographing elaborate but elusive movements (presumably to the strains of "La Cucaracha"), as they gambolled toward the ceiling, no doubt to giggle and smoke tiny cigars as part of their victory celebration.

Mark you, the waitress scored minor successes with her deft use of the napkins, squashing them and consigning the deceased to a nearby trashcan, then arming herself with fresh serviettes to continue the joust. Calypso King of the World, The Mighty Sparrow, in whose honour the news conference was being held, removed his cap and made several unsuccessful attempts to spank a couple of the more cheeky bugs, who paused along the escape route in vulgar demonstrations of defiance.

Disconcerting as this might all sound, it was not the first such episode for either hotel.

Hilton has paid medical bills before, most memorably on account of a smoked herring and saltfish brunch served up during one Carnival season, when the hotel enjoyed full occupancy.

And before its name change to Crowne Plaza, the Holiday Inn also had its share of embarrassment. During an address by Professor Gordon Rohlehr at a 1995 public consultation put on by the National Carnival Commission, a huge rat scampered across the ballroom, heading for the kitchen, in full view of a packed hall.

Now, these horrifying scenes played out at hotels that pride themselves on quality control and exemplary sanitation procedures, which says something awful about roadside vendors who handle foodstuff with no access to running water or toilet facilities.

Doubles dealers are routinely accused of using contaminated water in their preparations and corn-soup sellers have come under intense scrutiny, where allegations suggested their ingredients didn't all come from farmer's markets.

Nor is this scare limited to direct food purchases. The entire Form One class at Bishop Anstey High School was recently sent for vaccination, weeks after it was discovered that a coughing classmate, thought to have a cold, was actually stricken with tuberculosis. On Monday, I saw a man urinating on the side of a van parked to deliver bread and pastries. It is not uncommon to find expired goods on store shelves.

So while the Health Ministry is spending a disproportionate amount of time, money and energy in the attempt to nail three big shots in the North West Regional Health Authority, the little people are being exposed to prepared food that may not meet established sanitation standards.

Particularly in the case of hotels, the implications for tourism are also frightening. Nor are colourful stories about roti vendors using dog meat, or rabbit flesh passing for chicken causing any laughter these days.

Even people with cast-iron stomachs are succumbing to ailments caused by carelessness or negligence in food preparation. Clearly, as mankind grows increasingly fragile from ingesting synthetics, the attacking organisms are becoming more robust.

It must be time for the once ubiquitous food inspectors to make another round and like they do in some developed countries, make public those places where it is safe to eat.

Or is it that they too have been stricken with some horrible ailment arising from the inherent job hazard of tasting samples?

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