Pakistan’s food safety czar declares ‘war’ on unhygienic food

Philip Reeves of NPR’s The Salt blog writes that as soon as the pink-clad Ayesha Mumtaz steps out of her car, word of her arrival spreads along the street like a forest fire. Storekeepers begin shooing away customers, hauling down the shutters, and heading into the shadows in the hope that Mumtaz’s scrutinizing eye will not fall on them.

lahore-2-adb5dcb691d4f1ce4aae4bb6275ee03a966a082b-s1100-c15These traders would sooner lose business than risk a visit from a woman whose campaign to clean up the kitchens and food factories of Pakistan has made her a national celebrity, nicknamed “The Fearless One.”

Today, Mumtaz has come to a crowded alley in Lahore, a city with a long history of producing splendid South Asian cuisine, but with a less distinguished record of worrying about how food reaches the plate.

She is here to fire a fresh volley in her self-declared “war” against unhygienic food, by raiding a backstreet business that makes cakes, sweets and desserts for wholesale. Her target is a crumbling concrete house where the cooking takes place in the yard.

Mumtaz marches through the iron gate and begins rummaging around the big grubby pots and fly-blown cans of gooey liquid that seem to be lying around haphazardly. The place is strewn with dirty containers, grimy rags and rusty tin cans.

“You see the cleanliness of the utensils?” Mumtaz asks scathingly, as she holds up a giant spoon, crusted with filth. She reaches under a bench and hauls out a container littered with moldy scraps of cake.

It is “really horrible” that consumers are unaware the cakes and sweets that they’re buying over the counter are produced amid such squalor, says Mumtaz. She glares at the owner, who watches on in sullen silence.

Six months ago Mumtaz, 38, took over as operations director of the Punjab Food Authority, a government agency tasked with ensuring that the food served to Pakistan’s most populous province is hygienic and unadulterated.

Punjab has a population that is more than double that of California. Lahore, the provincial capital, has a vast array of food outlets, as you’d expect in a city whose relish for food is legendary.