Mouth-watering health hazards

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Come Ramadan and food stalls offering mouth watering delicacies galore crop up along the city’s roadsides. Just before Iftaar, the aromas of lip smacking pakoras, samosas, kachoris, jalaibis, namak paras, sizzling chaats and dahi bhalay make people flock like flies to these roadside stalls. Enticing the taste buds of unsuspecting fasting devotees with unhygienic and contaminated items cooked on the pavements beside gutters in almost all sectors of the capital including sectors G-6, G-7, G-8, G-9, G-10, F-6, F-7, F-8, F-10, I-8, I-9 and I-10, these roadside vendors pose serious health hazards to the people. The consumers’ health clearly not a concern high on the priority list of these vendors, they ‘recycle’ the same cooking oil several times over – a common sight at these stalls is food being fried in oil so dark that it resembles crude oil. A unique flavour is thus created, enhanced by the mingling of dust, with a hint of sewage from nearby gutters, and smacking of vehicular emissions. In order to make the food items extra crispy, hence harder to resist, it is believed that vendors make use of engine oil, while dyes, which contain toxic chemicals, are used in liberal amounts to give the food its exotic colouring.
Cooking utensils, pots, pans, trays and plates are similarly in a state to be seen, with a distinctive veneer of oil shining on them at all times: vendors usually keep a container full of water only to rinse these, and the same filthy water is reused over the course of the entire day. While the pro-water conservationist tendencies of the vendors can be praised, it comes at the daunting price of the consumers’ health.
For many consumers out on the road at the time of Iftaar, there is no other financially viable option but to buy these items to break their daylong fast. However, they lament the poor quality of food available to them. “Keema (minced meet) used in preparation of Iftar items is of poor quality and unhygienic, while the cooking oil used in making Kachori has also been found inferior in quality and bad for health,” said Hamza Khan, a customer. Others simply relish the sumptuous treat laid out for them, unmindful of the risks to their health.
Vendors, thus, are least concerned about the toxicity of the cooking oil they use or the unhygienic processes involved in preparation of their food. “There are roadside Iftar stalls all over Islamabad. We don’t have complaints from our customers,” said Kashif Pervaiz, a vendor at G-7 Markaz. “This is a popular seasonal business which requires minimal investment for good returns. Every year my brother and I set up a table and a cooking range on the pavement during Ramadan and sell Iftar items. The profit is good too,” he added.
Health experts said such food was not beneficial for a fasting person. “Majority of these food items are not good for health, especially on an empty stomach, for a person who has spent the entire day fasting,” Dr Waseem Khawaja from PIMS, told Pakistan Today.
He said that most of these food items had low nutritional value, as they were prepared only with basin, onions and spices. “The cooking oil, which is substandard in the first place, is carefully preserved for recycling,” he explained.
Khawaja said that reheating the oil gradually increased its acidity and it eventually turned toxic. “An item deep fried in that toxic oil might taste good, but it is in fact poisonous for the person consuming it,” he elaborated.
A PIMS spokesman said consumption of these foods over a long period of time caused serious illnesses. “Unhygienic practices employed by vendors contaminate the food with germs, dust and other matter. It can cause diarrhea, typhoid and jaundice after ingestion,” said Khawaja. “The oil, which has turned toxic after too much use, also causes irritation in the digestive tract, eventually turning into a peptic ulcer,” he said. “We heard the news of these vendors using burnt engine oil to fry food items. It is extremely harmful for the body, as it could severely damage the liver. The liver fails to process the food and its function is hindered, eventually causing its failure,” Khawaja added.
Medical experts said cholesterol levels, chest pain, acidity and complaints of other such ailments usually increased during Ramadan.
Islamabad Capital Territory Administration spokesman Khalid Mehmood told Pakistan Today that the chief commissioner had ordered a crackdown on all profiteers and vendors selling substandard food items across Islamabad. He said that 15 teams constituted by the city administration were monitoring all markets and bazaars in the capital, including ‘Sasta Bazaars’ and roadside stalls.  In order to clamp down on vendors employing unhygienic methods in the preparation of food items, food inspectors were conducting raids almost daily, he said. “Vendors found selling unhygienic and substandard food items would face fines and cases would also be registered against them in case of non-compliance,” said Mehmood.

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