Your waitress was cleaning No.2-ed toilets 10 minutes ago – bon appétit!

23 Apr 2018

The food that your waitress just delivered to your table looks appetizing but it is certainly in your best interests to gen up on some unappetizing facts about food hygiene and safety standards at even some of the most popular high-end restaurants.

In one respect, the exploitation of waiting staff at restaurants also takes the form of working without a contract of employment that stipulates duties. That has led to waiting staff taking on extra duties that include heavy cleaning of toilets. About everybody has a bad visual memory of a hideously No.2-ed public toilet. In the particular case of the restaurants in question, the task of cleaning such toilets falls to waiting staff who would have temporarily left the floor and have food orders pending. Thereafter, such waitron goes to the kitchen to collect and deliver the orders, in some instances, with the thumb fatefully pressed onto the plate surface, a few centimetres away from a dramatically-styled stack of salad.

The question is the most obvious one: from a public health perspective, is it proper for waitresses, who handle food, to also clean toilets?

“Not at all,” says Councillor Tshepo Moloko who is the Chairperson of the Environmental Social Health Committee of the Gaborone City Council (GCC). “Waiting staff can’t alternate between cleaning toilets and serving food because that poses a risk of contamination of food. Even allowing for a situation where that would be tolerable on condition that waiters wash their hands thoroughly after cleaning the toilets, the problem is that restaurant toilets themselves never have adequate supplies of handwashing facilities like soap.”

GCC, like all other councils across the country, is doing a less than stellar job of enforcing the public health code. Restaurants have far fewer toilets than the law requires and some of those toilets can stink to high heaven for months on end. To all intents and purposes, cockroaches - which are known to carry diseases and organisms including E. coli and Salmonella - have become veritable pets and secure in such knowledge, amble mindlessly on the floor, atop counters and into the handbags of female (and increasingly nowadays, male) patrons without the slightest care in the world. Mere presence of live cockroaches during the day indicates a serious infestation in the kitchen.

In another respect, the absence of guidelines for food shields (or sneeze guards) has been motivation for one major supermarket in Rail Park shopping mall in Gaborone to use stylishly-designed food shields that do anything but shield the food against contaminants - like sneezes and cough spray from both servers and customers. The bottom leading edge doesn’t connect with the counter top, thus leaving a yawning gap that can allow contaminants that food shields are meant to keep out.

Moloko says that his committee doesn’t conduct inspections of restaurants to ensure compliance with cleanliness and hygiene standards. That is left to GCC staff but the outcome has been perennially underwhelming. That is certainly not the case in Botswana’s former colonial master, Britain, which bequeathed the public health laws that are currently in use. In Britain, environmental health teams made up of councillors regularly conduct visits to ensure that standards of cleanliness and hygiene are met. Restaurants are required to use cockroach monitors as well as keep kitchen log books to show what measures have been taken to protect food and food equipment from contamination by cockroach infestation. Anyone suspecting a business of breaching hygiene standards can contact councils’ environmental health committees on a toll free number. Restaurants that contravene the health code can be issued with a court order to stop making and serving food if council environmental health officers find cockroaches in the kitchen. Likewise, in the US, facilities can have their health permits suspended for cockroach, rodent and fly infestations by the public health department. Beyond laxity on the part of government officials, Botswana is ill-served by the absence of a rigorous consumer activism that would force restaurants to adopt the desired food hygiene and safety standards.

Moloko says that he is personally not aware that waitresses at some restaurants double as toilet cleaners.

“To my knowledge, such matter has not been reported to the council,” he adds.

Oddly, while eating out is increasingly becoming popular among Batswana, establishments that are making a killing from this development have not fully modernised their food hygiene and safety standards. Typically and despite what they would be inclined to publicly hustle, restaurants don’t have a personal hygiene programme that provides the workforce with the necessary training on disease control and cleanliness. Keeping workers who are sick or have open wounds as far away from a food-handling environment as possible is the ideal but the reality is the exact opposite. The public health code prescribes that kitchen staff should wear chef hats and hairnets but both compliance and enforcement are very low. Despite the fact that baseball caps don’t properly contain a worker’s hair, they have become part of a chef’s uniform. In some jurisdictions, more stringent food safety standards prohibit open-toed shoes, false nails, nail polish, false eyelashes and any other object that may possibly contaminate food. Handwashing facilities are supposed to include hands-free sinks and a means to dry hands.

Taking advantage of a loosely regulated industry, some restaurant owners also cut corners by having waiting staff double as cooks. By law, kitchen staff undergo a battery of thorough medical tests on a periodic basis and those who fail are not allowed to work until they test clean. In Botswana, however, it is not uncommon for waiting staff who have not been medically tested to fill in for kitchen staff, including chefs.

Given the importance of tourism to the national economy, it is certainly desirable to adopt food hygiene and safety standards that wouldn’t make tourists uncomfortable. Already Africa has a bad reputation for a slew of imperfections and tourists visiting Botswana want to experience its wonders - not its food-borne diseases. One obituary of former US First Lady, Barbara Bush, who died last week, says that once when she was visiting Africa with her husband, she was warned to avoid salads at all costs because of suspect food safety standards on the continent.

There is also a fiscal dividend to observing appropriate standards. By all objective standards, Cuba, a country that Botswana has friendly relations with, has the best healthcare system in the world. This has been largely attributed to its preventative healthcare model. By adopting appropriate food hygiene and safety standards – thus preventing occurrence of food-borne disease – Botswana would cut its heathcare bill significantly.