Lahore's Food Safety Czar Declares 'War' On Unhygienic Food : The Salt In poorly regulated Lahore, Pakistan, Ayesha Mumtaz is a relentless enforcer of food-safety rules who strikes fear into local eatery owners. But some restaurateurs say she goes too far.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/459835645/461304354" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Lahore's Food Safety Czar Declares 'War' On Unhygienic Food

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/459835645/461304354" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • 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.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.