The United Arab Emirates’ food safety watchdog said recently that outdated attitudes regarding food safety are to blame for food workers’ failing hygiene tests.

All employees in the industry who handle food must be trained in hygiene by the end of 2012, according to a strategic plan released by Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority.

So far 40 percent of workers, about 17,000, have been trained, and 60 percent of those have failed the exams. Eleven percent of the country’s food workers have passed, according to The National.

In the past, the authority partially blamed language barriers for the problem, but more recently it said the absence of a culture of hygiene and food safety in restaurants and food outlets was also a major cause. “Unfortunately a lot of people think going into the kitchen and dealing with food does not need any science and anyone can do it,” said Mohammed al Reyaysa, the authority’s spokesman. “This is an old way of thinking and it is changing after the requirements and regulations being implemented.”

Al Reyaysa’s comments came after the release of a wide-ranging annual report, which detailed the agency’s programs, draft laws, financial status, and the total number of inspections and food establishment closures last year.

The high failure rate on hygiene exams has raised questions as to why the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority’s spending on food safety efforts has not led to better results. Passing the tests is currently not a requirement, but al Reyaysa indicated that it may eventually be obligatory for food workers in the emirate, posing a potentially protracted problem for employers.

The training involves teaching best practices in chilling food, cooking, cleaning, and avoiding cross-contamination through good personal hygiene.

A spokesman for Lulu Hypermarkets, whose meat counter in Al Wahda Mall was closed last summer for selling expired meat and other offenses, said that cultural backgrounds can account for inconsistencies in handling food.

“The staff has different nationality backgrounds, and in each country there are slight things that people think are OK to be done that aren’t; so when you’re following a international code of conduct there is a need to bring them all together,” said Nandakumar.

He said Lulu has worked closely with the food control authority to increase staff training and ensure standardized food safety and has not received any other warnings from the authority.

“Educating staff on importance of hygiene and food handling can only be achieved by constant training and monitoring,” said Nandakumar.

According to Stephen Pakenham-Walsh, a food service consultant based in Abu Dhabi, small aspects of hygiene such as monitoring food temperatures during preparation is still lacking.

“Even down to the preparation of salads and produce, which should be prepared in cold water,” he said.

Throughout 2009, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority trained border inspectors at Port Zayed in collecting food specimens, and introduced a standardized method for clearing of imported food, which will be implemented at all borders.

The authority’s expenditure exceeded Dh 900 million last year after the agency took up the task of overseeing the emirate’s agricultural development. Agriculture was transferred to the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority’s jurisdiction by a federal law issued in 2007, but work on integrating the departments began in earnest last year.

Income from services and government funding almost doubled from Dh 288 million to a little over half a billion dirhams, leaving a deficit of over Dh 366 million for 2009.