LAHORE, Pakistan — Here in the “food capital of Pakistan,” restaurant owners have started referring to Aysha Mumtaz as the toughest lady in town. But sometimes even Mumtaz, the head of the city’s newly empowered food inspection office, can only laugh over how gross her job really is.
Escorted around Pakistan’s second-largest city with an armed guard, Mumtaz is on the front line of the country’s latest war: trying to clean up restaurants that can be rife with stomach-churning viruses and bacteria.
For the past six months, Mumtaz and her 22-member team have been storming into restaurants, hotels, tea stalls and food warehouses in a highly public campaign to change how food is stored, prepared and served in a country that has a reputation for being one of the world’s most unhealthy places.
“Look at these dirty clothes hanging right over the food you plan to serve,” Mumtaz yelled recently at a restaurant owner here, pointing to a soiled salwar kameez garment hanging near freshly prepared badana, a local sweet, that was piled on the floor.
Then Mumtaz opened the freezer, caked in black ice, and began laughing at the rancid sight.
“You are keeping bricks in the freezer next to the potato salad?” Mumtaz asked. “And look at this mildew and mold. . . . Do you bury the dead in here?”
The restaurant owner pleaded for forgiveness. But in Lahore and several other Pakistani cities this year, sympathy is hard to come by as the country tries to get serious about one of its biggest killers.
Pakistan is home to all sorts of nasty food-borne illnesses. Mass food poisoning is common, and more than 100,000 children younger than 5 die of diarrhea-related illnesses annually.
Since Mumtaz took over as director of operations for the Punjab Food Authority in June, she and her employees have carried out more than 12,150 inspections here in Lahore, where there are about 40,000 restaurants, food carts and tea stalls. Nearly 1,000 of those eateries have been sealed while more than 375 people have been arrested for being grossly negligent, Punjab officials said.
Similar food safety campaigns also are underway in the upscale capital of Islamabad as well as in Peshawar, where a KFC restaurant was sealed in the summer after 200 expired food items were discovered.
In Islamabad, inspectors briefly shut down restaurants in two of the city’s most expensive and prominent hotels, the Serena and the Marriott. Dozens of other high-end restaurants frequented by Pakistani politicians and diplomats also have been fined or temporarily shuttered in recent months for violations such as serving “recycled food” as well as not vaccinating cooks for hepatitis and other communicable diseases.
“We were so disappointed to see some restaurants, which were having such a good reputation in town, and seeing the state of the kitchens, the utensils, the food,” said Abdul Sattar Isani, a deputy commissioner for the Islamabad District Administration. “Some of the things we have seen — unbelievable.”
But the eastern border city of Lahore, where a vibrant culinary heritage includes spicy barbecue and greasy rice dishes, has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s efforts to overhaul its food industry.
When the Punjab Food Authority started its campaign this year, Mumtaz said she quickly found that, like many aspects of life here, the selling of food is steeped in Pakistan’s classist traditions. All too often, she says, wealthy business owners couldn’t care less what the poor and middle class eat.
“Here in Pakistan, people have been starting food businesses based on the bulge in their pockets, and not whether they were qualified or knew anything about food handling, or hygiene, or food safety standards,” Mumtaz said. “In the process, they have been playing havoc with human health.”
Over the summer, the Punjab Food Authority began documenting its findings on Facebook, complete with unsettling photographs. Within weeks, the page had 300,000 “likes” in this city of about 6 million residents.
Lahore food inspectors discovered a confectionary shop that was storing muffins and cakes next to raw meat. A popular Pakistani coffee franchise was reprimanded for keeping nine-year-old syrups and creams. And there was the “big healthy rat” that jumped out at Mumtaz when she recently inspected a freezer at a local hotel.
“We have even found toilets in the kitchen and food production areas,” she said.
As if that isn’t bad enough, one restaurant in town was caught “washing utensils in the toilet,” said Ejaz Nawaz, a food safety officer who works for Mumtaz.
But in Pakistan, many food safety issues are not nearly as easy to spot.
With what Mumtaz describes as a multibillion-dollar food “mafia,” Pakistan is a country rife with adulterated, tampered and counterfeit food products.
Many brands of ketchup, for example, contain no tomato paste.
To maximize profits, milk producers frequently remove dairy fat from processed milk and replace it with vegetable fat. Some bakeries have been caught cracking eggs that contain well-developed embryos. Others are using industrial coloring agents and bleaches siphoned from Pakistan’s textile mills and using it as food coloring, Nawaz said.
“Even in baby formula, we have found they add textile dye instead of food coloring dye,” he said. “And preservatives used for dead bodies, we have even found that in milk.”
Mumtaz, who had no experience in food safety until she took this job, said such stories keep her energized to go after unsanitary restaurants in a public way. Some residents even call her “Dabangg,” which in Urdu means fearless.
But going up against Lahore’s politically connected restaurant industry hasn’t been easy. Some restaurant owners and food producers accuse her of showboating and, in September, the Lahore Hotels and Restaurants Association won a court ruling barring the agency from sharing videos and pictures of its raids on Facebook until a defendant “is found guilty by a court.”
But Mumtaz presses on. On a recent inspection tour, she and Nawaz drove up to a kebab shop, screeching to a halt as though they were conducting a drug raid.
Nawaz rushed in first, and immediately spotted a bin in the dining room that contained brackish water.
“This is for drinking, but look at it,” Nawaz said, pointing at water that had a green tinge.
As she does on most of her visits, Mumtaz grabbed the hands of cooks and waiters. “Look at those nails,” she said. Regulations require employees to have trimmed fingernails to avoid spreading bacteria.
Mumtaz and Nawaz walked back to the kitchen at the end of a small alley behind the restaurant.
Thousands of flies were swarming on countertops, appliances and utensils. One stove was located a few feet away from an open sewage drain. Mumtaz discovered freshly slaughtered chickens in a freezer next to other food items that had been cooked.
“This place looks better situated as a motorcycle repair shop than a kitchen,” she told the owner.
A seven-day shutdown notice was issued, and Mumtaz was off to her next stop. There, she cited a convenience store for not having expiration dates on baked goods.
The final stop of the day was a commercial bakery. Besides a few spider webs and dead ants, no major violations were found.
But residents still probably won’t see Mumtaz dining out in Lahore anytime soon.
“I prefer to eat my things at home,” she said.
Barbar Dogar in Lahore and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.