People who are in a hurry oftentimes eat breakfast outside the house to start the day right. Diners spend extra cash to taste new dishes and all-time favorites or to simply treat a family member or friend in a restaurant and savor the gustatory delights the place has to offer to its patrons.
But are restaurants and food establishments generally safe for the public? Sometimes, what is envisioned as a pleasant dining experience turns into a nightmare anybody would want to forget. Ever.
Food contamination and other perils in dining out are not a new issue, especially in large cities where restaurants are sprouting each year. Former Senator Anna Dominique “Nikki” Coseteng was not an exception when her recently ate breakfast in a restaurant in Pasay City, she claimed, was served with a dead cockroach.
She was having fried “daing na bangus” with her brother and two guests when, she also claimed, she discovered the horrible creature comfortably nestled in the food.
Upset, she said that she reported the incident to the restaurant supervisor, who told her, “We will replace it and won’t charge you for it. Sorry, [it] just [was] an accident.”
“Our initial assessment is that a civil case can be filed against the restaurant. An administrative case, however, can also be filed against the government office which issued the permit and license to the restaurant,” lawyer David Narvasa said.
During an interview, Rosendo Cabanayan, a sanitation inspector with the Pasay City Health Office, revealed that other similar incidents had happened in other restaurants nearby. According to him, it could be negligence on the part of the restaurant management that led to Coseteng being served a bummer of a breakfast.
When asked how restaurants are given the go-signal to start their food business, Cabanayan said that restaurant owners should first comply with the necessary requirements, such as mayor’s permit, municipal license, sanitary permit and health certificates.
After acquiring these, personnel from the Pasay City Health Office would inspect the restaurants right away. They would see to it that the restaurants had enlisted in a pest-control program with accreditation from the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority.
In such cases where contamination happens, the chemicals to be used for checking the pests should be registered with the Bureau of Food and Drugs and every insecticide application should be done under the supervision of a licensed pest control technician.
The sanitary inspectors will then check the kitchen and food preparation areas if these are free from contamination and far from toilets and probable sources of contamination such as gaps or openings on the ceilings or floors, and if there is a need to repair broken tiles or cabinets in the kitchen area.
After the inspection, guidelines on proper sanitation would be given out to a establishment. Health education emphasizing food safety and proper food handling is conducted. The findings would then be submitted to the City Mayor.
The Pasay City Health Office has 10 inspectors who check on restaurants once a year.
When asked if doing it once a year is enough, Cabanayan said that unless there is a formal complaint filed by letter or phone with their office, his office would immediately conduct an unannounced re-inspection of a restaurant. This time, a general cleaning and pest-control operation are advised to ensure that the whole establishment is insect- and dirt-free. If the health office finds out that the restaurant lacks some of the requirements needed, the office gives seven working days for the establishment to accomplish them. A re-inspection will be made after seven days.
Raul Rosete, a sanitation inspector with the Manila City Health Office, said that their office conducts unannounced periodic inspections of restaurants once a month.
Manila has 62 sanitary inspectors, one division chief inspector, one chief of operations and management inspector, one administrative officer and 13 clerks.
Once a complaint is filed, their office first gets a mission order to start the unannounced re-inspection. If violations and deficiencies are observed, they give 10 working days to a food establishment to comply with all the requirements and fix sanitation problems inside the food preparation areas.
If these are not done within the 10 days, another seven working days are allotted. If the seven days turn out to be insufficient, the restaurant is given five more days to comply. If after 22 days the requirements are not yet met and the sanitation problems are not yet solved, the office shall recommend a closure order for the restaurant.
Rosete said that every City Health Office bases its ordinance covering compliance with the requirements and with sanitation standards on the Code of Sanitation of the Philippines or Presidential Decree 856. Ordinances vary from one city to another but, he added, it all boils down to the food safety and health concerns of the public and food preparation by the food establishments.
Other city health offices, such as those of Makati and Quezon City, said that almost all cities share the vision of ensuring food safety for the health of the public. They have their own protocols but all are based on the sanitation code.
Right to complain
Consumers have the right to complain, Rosete said. According to him, a customer can call the attention of the restaurant manager, present his receipt to the manager and have it signed by the manager, get a sample of the contaminated food and take pictures of it for documentation and file a report with the city health office. The customer can press charges depending on the damage the tainted food had caused him.
“There is no easy way in this job,” according to Cabanayan of the Pasay City Health Office. The office’s major concern is the health of the public, he stressed.
Though Cabanayan admitted that the number of inspectors of their office is inadequate for the numerous restaurants in the city, the inspectors still manage to get by. He said that conditions of restaurants differ at different times. There might be many customers, yet the restaurant’s manpower is not enough. When asked for statistics on restaurants that open and close and are inspected each year, Cabanayan referred to the license department, which he said has the data.
There are many challenges facing the Pasay City Health Office, among them complaints made by celebrities. According to Cabanayan, the office tries to get to the bottom of the complaints.
He said that sometimes they end up being misunderstood. Some of the celebrities do not understand the nature of their work, some appreciate them and some get mad at them.
Just an isolated case
Coseteng’s case was an isolated one, according to Nelson Buan, the operations manager of the restaurant where the former senator was about to take breakfast.
“Hindi namin ginusto ang nangyari [We did not want it to happen],” he said.
The incident was, according to him, the first that happened in their restaurant. Buan said Coseteng had been their regular customer.
It led to the misting, fumigating and fogging of the restaurant on April 1. The Pasay City Health Office inspected it on April 7 and found no violation. It, however, ordered the establishment to seal gaps or openings and repair broken tiles in the kitchen area. The restaurant will be due for renovation by the middle of this year.
“I am grateful that we have customers who complain because that would let us know what to improve,” Buan said.
The restaurant sent a letter of apology to Coseteng. “If she comes to visit again, we will give her a much better service,” Buan said.
The Pasay City Health Office received a formal letter of complaint letter from the former senator on April 14, stating details of the incident and suggesting that the restaurant be shut down for a month for sanitation and sterilizing of all equipment, furniture and the entire outlet.
The city health office gave the restaurant seven working days to look into Coseteng’s letter, after which it will check on the steps taken by the restaurant in reaction to the letter. –Rianne Marie P. Miranda, Special To The Manila Times
Editor’s note: Miss Miranda is a student trainee from Ateneo de Zamboanga University.