By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent
Bananas with brown spots. Rubbery carrots with wrinkled skin. Tomatoes with black spots and showing the onslaught of mold. These are just a few of the vegetables Reshmi, an Indian housemaid in Kuwait, bought today with her hard earned Dinars. As the global economic crisis takes on an even more alarming pace, those who already live a meager hand-to-mouth existence are finding it increasingly more difficult to put food on the table.
For Reshmi, and hundreds of thousands of poor expatriate laborers living in the Gulf region, eating food that is spoiled or not fit for human consumption is a part of daily life. There is a thriving black market for food that has been rejected for release into the marketplace. The majority of Gulf nations have strict quality controls in place to ensure that food being sold to consumers is of the best quality. The State of Kuwait, for example, is one such country that has a stellar reputation for food safety controls in coordination with the World Health Organizations (WHO) standards.
All edible food that is imported into the country must receive a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Agriculture before it even is brought onto Kuwaiti soil. Unfortunately, some shipments of food entering Kuwait are never inspected. Unscrupulous businessmen use wasta, or influence, to circumvent the food inspection process. They knowingly purchase food that is overripe or damaged from their suppliers for a mere fraction of the cost of fresh produce. Then they peddle it on the streets of Kuwait to unsuspecting consumers.
At any time of day, peddlers can be seen carting around huge boxes of mangoes on their shoulders. They often go door to door selling the poor quality produce to whomever will buy it. And the buyers are often plentiful, as the cities in which they sell the tainted goods are comprised primarily of poor day laborers. Itâ€™s also very common to see the fruits and vegetables slated for sale outside of the mosques. Peddlers set up blankets and await customers just finishing up their prayers.
Tainted food is rife in Kuwait and is sometimes even purchased by restaurants. This year alone, five separate bloggers have reported cases of spoiled food being served to them. In one case, rotten tomato slices were discovered on a sandwich purchased at an American fast food chain and in another a woman found several large bugs stuck to the lettuce in her premade salad. In both cases, the restaurants in question were accused of knowingly buying rotten produce to offset some of their costs.
Most recently even medications have been found for sale on the Kuwaiti market that have already expired. In the most notable case, a packet of antibiotics was sold to a consumer at a local pharmacy with an expiration date of two years prior. The medicine was intended for a child and luckily the father read the expiration date before administering it.
Authorities in Kuwait have not been as swift in dealing with the problem of the rotten food and medicines that have escaped inspection and are being sold on the black market.
This is surprising considering the code of hygiene that restaurants, coffee houses and other eateries in Kuwait must live up to around the clock. The Kuwaiti government has a zero tolerance policy for restaurants found to be serving rotten food or preparing the food in an unhygienic manner. A group of dedicated inspectors perform surprise inspections at every eatery in Kuwait and their findings are usually published in the local newspapers. Offending restaurants are often shut down within minutes of failing the inspection.
However, cracking down on the spoiled food peddlers is a trickery task given that the target is in a constant state of motion. And unfortunately the evidence is typically eaten in good faith without a thought to its questionable origins. â€œ I have to feed my family,â€ Reshmi laments, â€œand am grateful for whatever I am able to afford even if it might make me sick.â€