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Watching your bac'

By Terry Joseph
November 05, 2004

Not before this week did I fully comprehend the breadth of interpretation issuing from the term "food fight", having naively limited its definitions to vaudeville's hackneyed pie-in-the-face routine, or similar shenanigans by unruly kids at vacation camps; forgetting economics always is the primary cause of war.

The sheer inadequacy of my initial appreciation became clear when health inspectors panned a number of Port of Spain restaurants, firing their first salvo using silencers until, publicly pushed for more than mere bullet-points about the infringements, they named names; provoking food retailers who were apparently spoiling (oops!) for a fight.

Now, all the inspectors were really doing was assessing health risk, watching your bacteria (or "bac" as they call it), identifying environs in which it peaked and coaxing those food retailers to improve their outlets. In a civilised society, it would be considered a most noble gesture, given the simultaneous recall of aerosol spray by Baygon which, according to some of the findings, should be right alongside the rack of condiments at certain fast-food restaurants.

And it was right on time, for we have all seen rats and roaches openly holding seminars behind the kitchen doors of these places or scurrying to and fro with putrid morsels.

Calling for amendment of the Public Health Act to allow his officers greater authority in deciding whether or not offending establishments should be closed during remedial work, chief public health inspector, Sayad Ali, lamented his team's inability to take more serious action against owners found in breach.

Well who tell he say dat! The proprietors immediately identified conceded infringements, saying none suggested unsanitary conditions.

Some went for whole-page full-colour press advertisements to defend their claims, at a price rivalling the cost of remedial work. In each such case, a curious closing paragraph commends the Port of Spain City Corporation and its Public Health Inspectors for continued vigilance, pledging to work with them to ensure the highest standards of food preparation and handling.

But the white flag didn't fool anyone. Some proprietors were busy threatening litigation, defying authority at will, bringing into focus Mr Ali's appeal and signalling another internecine skirmish, bringing former city mayor-now Health Minister-John Rahael fully into the theatre.

Mr Rahael's record of closing down errant food services during his tenure as chairman of the Capital City was not tabled but he admonished incumbent Mayor Murchison Brown for claiming health inspectors had no such power, as health laws were too archaic and prevented inspectors from serving notices of closure to delinquents.

Well who tell he say dat! Mr Rahael responded fiercely, asking tongue-in-cheek whether the laws of Port of Spain and San Fernando were different, pointing to decisive action taken by inspectors in the southern city, saying he was not aware of any legislation preventing implementation of a similar procedure in the north; bringing new meaning to "take out" in the fast-food lexicon.

Suddenly, everyone was watching our bacteria. It seemed unusually magnanimous in a country where food suppliers and monitoring systems often are equally laissez-faire. The food vendors assured that their products were safe and, as always, they were looking out for us. Mayor Brown and his frequently pilloried team waved the rod of correction.

The Downtown Merchants Association (DOMA) welcomed stringency and Minister Rahael crusaded for closure.

Meanwhile, dreadlocked pedestrian pie and peanut salesmen without caps and fast-food outlet female attendants sporting hairstyles requiring high levels of chemical treatment did not come under the microscope, although even those who do wear headgear treat it as a fashion statement rather than precaution against abdicating strands falling into boxes of chicken and chips, burgers or ice-cream pails.

No mention was made of food served from vans, temporary roadside stalls or out of the boot of vehicles, where the vendor has no access to running water as a post-urinal procedure, nor did we hear from the anti-bacteria brigade about the menace of vagrants ripping open garbage bags to forage for leftovers; lending integrity to an otherwise incredulous statement from one proprietor who said his business place was maliciously targeted.

But being a country of varied and continuous amazements, a gasoline shortage mid-week upstaged public health concerns, triggering anxieties about more important matters like possible curtailment of weekend partying, a not unreasonable ranking of priorities, considering how many people in the food service and public health sectors are already watching your back.

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