Every year during Vesak, people crowd the streets to observe the brilliantly-lit decorations and pandals. It is the season when people set up stalls and hand out food and drinks for free, adding excitement to the public’s evening. Although hygiene has been an issue over the years, the Daily Mirror learns through the CMC Chief Food Inspector M.D. Lal Kumara and the President of the Public Health Inspector Union Sri Lanka Upul Rohana, that our standard of hygiene and quality is rising and that many monitoring systems are in place to ensure that we can accept food and drinks from dansalas without any problem.
Speaking of the standards set for dansalas, Mr. Kumara said there were many factors to consider when it came to hygiene standards, including the type of ingredients used, the water and the cooking environment. “For example, if they are having a rice dansala, we tell them that instead of using old grains with unclean objects in it, they should get clean, standardized rice. Most of the time we are concerned about the water, since the usage of water from tube wells is banned in Colombo. Only tap water is allowed. If they are storing water in tanks, they must keep them clean and closed at all times, otherwise dirt can get inside. We go around and check for discrepancies like this. We also inspect the chilli powder, pepper, salt and turmeric to ensure they are of good quality. We have advised people to use packeted products instead of making their own.”
“The cooking in dansalas may be done outside. A tent must be put up, otherwise dust and other objects can fall into the food. Some people are used to cooking bare-bodied but we don’t allow this. The cooks should also keep themselves clean and use soap to wash their hands. We have also advised that those with contagious illnesses and colds should not be allowed to work in dansalas,” he added.
He pointed out that when it came to drinks, dansalas had many standards to follow. “We have told them how to store water and advised that clean water should be used when making these drinks. When using packets to make these, they are told to check the expiry and manufacture dates. We have also told them to store packets in the correct manner and asked them to use clean containers when making food and drinks.”
Mr. Kumara added that in many instances he had seen plates and utensils being washed in basins, which he discourages. “Running water rather than stagnant water should be used to wash cups and plates.”
"We have informed the public that they need to register the dansalas they are putting up.When they register, we ask them about the kind of dansala they will be running and give relevant advice"
Citing the waste issue, Mr. Kumara said, “We have encouraged people to use cups and plates that can be recycled. Because of the waste issue it is better to have reusable utensils. Sometimes when they put hot food into Styrofoam boxes, there is a higher chance for it to go bad. We have advised them to use banana leaves as they are easily disposable and environment-friendly.”
Speaking of reducing the use of polythene and plastic, Mr. Rohana said, “We have asked people to stop using plastic and polythene in dansalas. This year, although we saw that some places were using it, the use of lunch sheets has greatly reduced. However, plastic plates and cups were being used to serve drinks and rice. Even though food can be placed in plastic, it is still quite harmful. Next year we hope to completely eradicate the use of plastic.”
Speaking of how dansalas are monitored, Mr. Kumara pointed out “We have informed the public that they need to register the dansalas they are putting up.When they register, we ask them about the kind of dansala they will be running and give relevant advice. Afterwards, health officers and food inspectors in those areas go to inspect the dansalas. We also have a special team to look into the dansalas in Colombo.”
Adding to the registration factor, Mr. Rohana said, “When they register, they are informed of the relevant standards they need to follow. We look into the materials used, how they are stored, how they serve, the instruments used, how the food is processed and the entire running of it.”
Voicing his concerns, Mr. Kumara added “Most of the time when cooking rice, the bacteria Bacillus Cereus can enter the grains, which is why we tell people to be careful when cooking outside and to make sure there is no dirt near the food.”
"This year people were more aware of the health standards they needed to maintain. They knew we would come to inspect them which is why they kept everything clean."
“Those preparing food in the dansalas have also been advised not to chew betel, to smoke cigarettes or to spit,” he said.
“Up to now we have not received any complaints about the dansalas and there have been no reports of food poisoning” said Mr. Kumara.
“This year people were more aware of the health standards they needed to maintain. They knew we would come to inspect them, which is why they kept everything clean.” Speaking of his observations, Mr. Kumara added,“What we saw was that the dansalas were kept clean but the people who came were littering. However, the dansalas are much better than what they were last year, because people follow the hygiene standards we have set out. We don’t fine or take them to court because they are doing this for free, so we encourage them to keep the dansalas clean.”
Mr. Rohana spoke of the figures they had gathered this year, “We were able to collect data on the dansalas registered on Vesak Poya day and the day after and we took necessary action against those who didn’t followed the standards.
This year the number of dansalas registered countrywide was 5,217, the dansalas we conducted pre-inspections on were 4,481 and the dansalas inspected on Vesak Poya and the day after came to 7,125, including registered and unregistered dansalas.
The number of dansalas that served spoiled food and those which were unsatisfactory came down to 121. Out of these, five drink dansalas were closed. One reason being that the water they used was unclean, secondly, because the containers used to store drinks were of an acidic nature. The highest number of dansalas closed down were in the North Western Province, followed by the Western Province and finally the North Central Province.”
“We will only be taking legal action on the advice of medical officers in the area. The dansalas were held after religious observances so we could not take action. There is the problem of registering them however, as money doesn’t need to be paid. Officials will only advise and help people run the dansalas.
Next year we will have to take some action in order to increase awareness on the necessity to register.” “There were less dansalas this year when compared to last year. However, each year the hygiene levels improve. We started the dansala inspections in formally only six years ago. Now the quality of the dansalas are getting better,” he concluded.
"We have asked people to stop using plastic and polythene in dansalas. This year, although we saw that some places were using it, the use of lunch sheets has greatly reduced"