Monday, March 10, 2008

What does it take to make us clean up our act?

Having lived in Hong Kong for a while, I am perhaps more aware of the potential for the spread of diseases than the average Kiwi. The Chinese have suffered SARS and bird flu and are very keen to avoid more outbreaks of either. If you sneeze in public, people will stare accusingly at you; people who have a cold will voluntarily wear a face mask out of consideration for others; there are hand sanitizing stations around public buildings and patrons are warned not to feed birds in outdoor eating areas.

With these thoughts in mind, I have been surprised to see the couldn’t care less attitude of some businesses here at home. When a fly crawling over the goods in a bakery was pointed out to the assistant, she shrugged her shoulders and said that it was impossible to keep them out. There is a coffee and cake shop on the podium level of the apartment block where I live. They have a resident population of flies there too. But in addition, they have birds. Not in cages as decoration, but possibly as employees. These birds hop around on the floor and pick up crumbs. They also hop onto the tables on the terrace and finish off the meals left by the patrons – the plates stay on the tables long after the diners have left. This is just not acceptable in any food service premises.

New Zealand has been lucky and so far avoided bird flu scares. However, bird flu is not the only concern. When birds hop around on floors or tables and perch on chairs, they are inclined to leave droppings behind. If eventually an assistant comes to remove the plates, the table will be wiped with a cloth, spreading a thin film of droppings around and probably contaminating the whole surface with faecal bacteria and viruses. Of course, we don’t eat off the table, but it would be hard not to touch it and so there is a risk of ingesting these organisms, particularly if we eat cakes or breads with our fingers.

I would have expected these failings to be brought to the attention of the shop owners by the authorities. Perhaps we also put too much faith in antibacterial sprays. Are they an extension of the plastic glove = bullet-proof syndrome? We need to see safety in practice, not just in a manual on the manager’s shelf. I hope it will not take a SARS epidemic or outbreak of bird flu to convince these businesses to clean up their act.

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