Lahore's Food Safety Czar Declares 'War' On Unhygienic Food

Dec 28, 2015
Originally published on December 29, 2015 10:52 am

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.

These 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 flyblown 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.

"If I were to point my finger at the No. 1 favorite social activity of Lahories, it is to go out and eat," says Lahore-born academic and musician Taimur Rahman. "It is more important than music. It's more important than politics. For Lahories, I think they live for food."

You only need take an evening stroll along Anarkali Food Street, one of Lahore's favorite cheap eating spots, to see the city's hearty appetite. The sidewalk is lined with restaurants. These are full of people, lured by the smell of frying fish and freshly baked naan bread.

Every now and then, there's a rapid-fire burst of metallic drumming as a chef chops up a mixture of goat's kidney, brains, liver and testicle on a big, flat steel pan. He's making a local favorite called Taka Tak, after the chopping sound.

Taking on Punjab's food industry is a monumental task. Mumtaz seems undeterred. She views access to safe food as "a basic human right" — her mission is to secure this for the public, she says.

So far, she and her inspectors have raided more than 13,000 businesses, handing out fines, sending samples for lab tests, and occasionally closing outlets down until they can prove they comply with legal standards. Civil servants tend to be regarded with contempt by Pakistanis, who often accuse them of corruption and idleness.

Mumtaz is winning many fans because she is considered an exception. More than 350,000 people have signaled their approval by clicking the "like" button on the Punjab Food Authority's Facebook page. Mumtaz is pleased by this recognition: "It is like thousands of bubbles bursting inside when you feel people really respect you," she says.

Part of her popularity is drawn from her willingness to take on some of Lahore's big players. In Pakistan, government officials have a reputation of hounding the poor while giving a free pass to the powerful. Mumtaz has raided some of Lahore's most prestigious establishments. In one five-star hotel, she found a rat in a fridge alongside the chilled fruit and meat.

Mumtaz has many stories like that. Her organization's raids have unearthed lizard droppings on cakes, cosmetics used as food coloring, and dirty underwear draped over dishes. If she'd collected every cockroach she'd found, she'd have an army, she remarks with a sudden, startling grin.

"Hygiene issues have been running rampant in most of the eateries," says Mumtaz. "People are simply unaware of what hygiene is." Yet Mumtaz says many food operators are willing to learn and change their ways, once the rules are explained to them.

This does not include what she calls a "mafia," a ruthless criminal minority who are interested only in profit and resist any attempt to clean up their act. "We have to come down hard on them," she says. "We cannot allow them to get away with their perverse activities and play havoc with the lives of the people."

Some are pushing back. The Lahore Restaurant Association recently won a judge's order banning Mumtaz's food authority from naming and shaming eateries on Facebook before they've been found guilty in court of any violations.

Ahmad Shafiq, the association's general secretary, accuses Mumtaz of overstating the scale of the problem. He says his members — who are from the city's top restaurants — are not against her campaign but need clear guidelines. "I take my children to the same restaurants where the food authority has concerns," he says. "So we need to have safe food for our children. It is not that we are against any authority or any department. We appreciate their assistance."

He thinks Mumtaz has too much power. "It is like giving someone complete charge — that you are the regulator, you are judge, and you are the police.
One person has all the authority. It shouldn't happen."

Back at the sweets factory in the yard, Mumtaz is winding up her raid. She has decided the premises must be sealed until the business abides by the law. A friend of the owner tries to intervene, appealing for leniency. "You have no right to interfere!" retorts Mumtaz.

Mumtaz is proud of her reputation for fearlessness. "Of course I am fearless," she says. "I think that one has to do one's duty in a very valiant manner. I say that I won't run away: I'm here."

She steps into the street, where a crowd has gathered to catch a glimpse of her. Some people are taking pictures with their cellphones.

"This is a blessing in disguise, that such a woman is working so amazingly," says Emmad Shaikh, a 23-year-old student. He watches, starstruck, as Mumtaz and the policeman who escorts her on these raids climb into their small white car and head off to inspect another food factory elsewhere.

"People are actually happy that there is a hope that they'll get good-quality food in the near future," says Shaikh. It is way too early for such optimism, but Ayesha Mumtaz is certainly showing quite a fight.

Whatever the outcome, Lahore is sure to remain a city of foodies, full of the smell of fresh naan and the sound of Taka Tak.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We turn now to a story about war. But this war is waged without weapons, and it's over food. It's taking place in the kitchens and food factories of Pakistan. NPR's Philip Reeves sent this report from the Anarkali neighborhood in the city of Lahore.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: People call this place Food Street. Walk with me a little way. You'll see why.

It's 8 in the evening. The sidewalk restaurants are filling up. Here, menus are long.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Yet, waiters know them by heart.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Sajid Hussein is firing up his giant steel pan. He tosses on some butter, starts chopping up a kidney, a liver, some brains and a testicle. These once belonged to a goat. Hussein is making one of Lahore's favorite dishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSIL CLANGING)

REEVES: Listen. Maybe you'll guess its name.

(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSIL CLANGING)

REEVES: Taka tak. In this city, food really matters. Lahore has been a hub of South Asian cuisine for centuries. Running a kitchen here isn't easy. Summers are very hot. There are power cuts every few hours. In some areas, there are wandering animals, open drains and piles of trash. Yet, so long as the food on the plate was tasty, few seemed to worry about how it got there until now.

We're in a narrow lane lined with shops. A woman dressed in pink steps out of a small, battered car. Her name is Ayesha Mumtaz. Mumtaz is operations director of the Punjab Food Authority. It's a government agency tasked with ensuring food in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, in unadulterated and safe. Everyone in the street seems to know about Mumtaz. Shopkeepers pull down their shutters. They're frightened she'll visit them.

REEVES: In fact, Mumtaz is here to raid this place - a shabby concrete building where cakes and sweets are made in the back yard.

AYESHA MUMTAZ: What is this (unintelligible)?

REEVES: Inside, Mumtaz rummages around the giant pots and pans.

MUMTAZ: And you may see the cleanliness of the utensils.

REEVES: She picks up a big spoon coated with stale food.

MUMTAZ: Here, again, this is the kind of things. And you can see the condition of the pot as well.

REEVES: Yes, it's rusty and dirty and grimy.

Mumtaz peers into an open tin can full of what looks like green slime.

Oh, what's that?

MUMTAZ: That seems to be some insect or a fly. It is really horrible to know that such kind of things are being sold to the market and to be sold to the local consumers because they're unaware of such kind of a thing that is happening within the premises.

REEVES: Mumtaz, who's 38, has only been doing her job for six months. Her self-declared war on unhygienic food has generated so much publicity that she's already a household name in Pakistan. Mumtaz says many food producers know nothing about hygiene but are willing to learn. There's also a hardened mafia who are only interested in profit, she says.

MUMTAZ: We have to come down hard on them. We cannot really allow them to get away with their perverse activities and to play havoc with the lives of the people.

REEVES: Civil servants in Pakistan are often accused of being lazy and corrupt. Mumtaz is being feted as a rare example of a government official who actually champions the public's rights. She and her inspectors have so far raided more than 13,000 businesses. Pakistanis seem to approve. Her fans call Mumtaz the Fearless One. Hundreds of thousands have clicked like on the Punjab Food Authority's Facebook page in appreciation of her work.

MUMTAZ: I really feel elevated, and I feel blessed. It's like thousands of bubbles bursting inside when you feel that people really respect you.

REEVES: Pakistan's government regulators have a reputation for hounding ordinary folk while giving the elite a free pass. Mumtaz has raided some of Lahore's fanciest five-star establishments.

MUMTAZ: There was a very famous hotel in the heart of the city. And we went there, and when we inspected the chiller where they keep the foods and the vegetables and all that stuff, the chicken and the meat, we found a big rat inside the chiller.

AHMAD SHAFIQ: It's like giving someone complete charge. You are a regulator. You are a judge, and you are the police. This - it shouldn't happen.

REEVES: Ahmad Shafiq is general secretary of the Lahore Restaurant Association. The association includes some of Lahore's most prestigious eateries. Shafiq welcomes the campaign for hygienic food by Mumtaz and her team but condemns their methods.

SHAFIQ: They go with the police, with a lot of cameras. The raid on the properties, and you put them on the national broadcasting, national media same time for what? They're not convicted yet.

MUMTAZ: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: At the backstreet sweet factory, Mumtaz's raid has turned into an argument. She's decided to seal the premises until the factory complies with legal standards. A friend of the owner tries to intervene.

MUMTAZ: You have no right to interfere.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

MUMTAZ: Of course I am fearless. And I think that one has to do one's duty in a very valiant manner. We have to carry out all the inspections in a very fearless manner. I say that I won't run away. I'm here.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: The raid's over. A crowd's gathered. As Mumtaz steps out into the street, people hold up their cell phones and take pictures. Emmad Shaikh, a 23-year-old student, seems star-struck.

EMMAD SHAIKH: This is a blessing in disguise that such a woman is working so amazingly, that people are actually happy that there is a hope that they will get good-quality food in the near future.

REEVES: Ayesha Mumtaz climbs into her car and heads off to raid another business. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Lahore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.