BY MOHAMMAD SHOEB and SACHIN KUMAR
Doha: The name and shame policy of the government, under which names of erring eateries and food outlets are put on a website, has evoked a mixed response from customers and other stakeholders. Some have endorsed the move, saying it will help improve quality, while others argue that it will not serve any purpose because people are not aware of it and they usually do not visit websites before going to a restaurant.
As part of efforts to improve quality and hygiene in restaurants and eateries, the government recently amended the food monitoring law No. 4 of 2014, which authorises the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning to shut erring outlets and publish their names on its website and those of the departments concerned.
Many say the new policy has not started yielding results as customers are still visiting outlets found violating the consumer protection law, ignoring the fact that their names have been published on the ministry’s website.
When some restaurants reopened after being closed for a few days, they were full with customers as if the eateries had done nothing wrong. Patrons in these eateries raised questions about the efficacy of the name and shame policy.
Those who believe that such a measure will not prove effective cite two reasons: One, people do not use the Internet to select a restaurant for lunch or dinner; two, those who see the names of such eateries on the websites will forget them, as people have short memories.
“Big brands and high-end food outlets already maintain high quality standards. Eateries that often fail to maintain hygienic conditions and prescribed food quality standards are usually visited by limited income people who are not very Internet-savvy. So I do not think naming and shaming will have much impact,” said Tauseef Khan, a single worker who frequents Asian eateries.
Khan said: “Frankly speaking, generally, for low-income people from the Indian subcontinent who make up a significant proportion of the customers of such restaurants, hygiene is not a big issue. I believe they are more concerned with the price. To me, the food should be worth the price.”
Speaking to the staff at some low-end restaurants and food outlets revealed that they are worried about the newly introduced food laws, but do not have much idea about the impact of publishing the names of erring outlets online.
“I have been taking care of this restaurant for the last seven years and, thankfully, have not been fined so far. We, the staff at the outlet, try our best to comply with the prescribed standards as our livelihood is directly linked to the business. We are aware of the consequences, that if the shop is closed even for a month we will be the first sufferers as there will be no wages to support our families back home, let alone paying the rents and other expenses,” said a staffer at a juice and food corner on Al Matar Street who did not wish to be named.
However, he was not very sure about the impact of publishing online the names of restaurants violating the food law.
Under the amended law, erring restaurants and outlets face tougher penalties, including closure of such outlets for 60 days instead of 30 days earlier.
Outlets caught breaching the food law will have only 10 days, instead of 15 days earlier, for filing a petition with the minister against closure. The minister will have to get back to the petitioner within 10 days, instead of 30 days earlier.
If the minister does not respond to the petition within the above time frame, the petition is to be considered rejected. But many local businesses and young entrepreneurs are not worried by all this so long as the government enforces the law effectively to improve quality.
“In my opinion, there are certain important things that the food law should be taking care of. Naming and shaming can help improve quality standards as the consumers have the right to demand better products and services,” said Khalifa Saleh Haroon (pictured), founder and CEO of I Love Qatar and Haroon United Group.
He wondered if the government was publishing the names of erring restaurants immediately or giving them some time to rectify the situation.
“Is the government giving the opportunity to improve, because the ultimate objective of naming and shaming or any punitive measure should be to encourage the businesses to improve quality,” he said.
“I endorse the view that the government should provide some sort of help or educative training and advisory services to such erring restaurants to overcome the issues,” he added.
Asked about the view that publishing names online will not serve the purpose, he said: “I disagree with the argument that customers of erring restaurants do not use Internet.”
Citing ictQatar statistics, he said Qatar was a country with one of the highest number of Internet users, so those who argued that patrons of such restaurants did not surf the Internet were mistaken.
“I am not sure if the government is focusing only on small and low-end eateries. If that is the case, then it should be targeting all eateries and restaurants, irrespective of their size and brand. Because at the end of the day everybody needs to be protected, not just a certain segment of the population,” he said.
On fears that stringent laws will discourage fresh investments, especially by young local entrepreneurs, Haroon said: “If the government is extra clear in its endeavour to upgrade quality standards with the amended law, I don’t think it will have any adverse impact on new and existing businesses.”
“I am also planning to open a fast food restaurant…. As an entrepreneur, I will have to fulfil responsibilities towards my customers. So I must comply with the prescribed rules and maintain high standards, because customers love and deserve high-quality food and better services,” argued Haroon.
“In my area there are no options when it comes to Sri Lankan restaurants. When it was closed, there was no other restaurant for me to go to for lunch and dinner. I was eagerly waiting for this restaurant to open,” said Abu Sali, a Sri Lankan expatriate living in Al Hilal.
“The idea of naming and shaming is good, but there should be more restaurants for customers. I want my food to be hygienic, but if I do not have any alternative place to eat which is clean and cheap, then there is no option but to eat in a restaurant shamed by government departments,” he added.
Tauseef Hussain, a Najma resident, said: “I do not know about the name and shame policy of the government. This policy can be effective only if customers are made aware of this initiative. The government should carry out a campaign to make customers aware of outlets that violate consumer laws. If consumers know about erring outlets they will stop visiting them.”
Customers also complain that the stickers pasted on the doors of eateries closed for violating laws do not contain enough information. They say the stickers should give more details about the violations committed by the joint, such as mentioning if the food served was expired or the juice was unfit for consumption.
“The name and shame policy is for customers, and the effect of this will be visible in the long term. The food business is all about the reputation and image of the outlet, and customers prefer to eat in reputed food joints,” said a restaurant owner in Najma.
“This policy will deter outlets from violating laws because that will tarnish their image,” he said.