To provide a better perspective on the enormity and complexity of ensuring the food safety in Dubai, it’s useful to have some context on the complexity of the task and the important role Dubai plays in the 21st-century food system.

As long as foodborne disease exists somewhere in the world, it can exist anywhere in the world.

With a population of around 2.5 million residents, over 13 million visitors each year, and as a gateway for food import and export throughout the Middle East, it’s hard to overstate the importance that Dubai plays in today’s global food system. In the last two decades, there have been tremendous changes and exponential growth in the food industry in Dubai. With such rapid modernization, there have been increased challenges. For example, the high volume of food that is handled at the ports and thousands of food establishments, the diversity in the type and nature of foods, and a diverse workforce employed in the food sector are just some of the notable challenges.

The Dubai Food Safety Department has the important responsibility to oversee the import and export of food, food establishment inspections, food safety training, consultancy programs, plan approvals for food establishments, foodborne disease outbreak investigations, and food sample collection from all of Dubai.

Dubai’s food establishments safely cater to millions of residents and international visitors on an annual basis. There are more than 17,000 food establishments and people from over 200 countries work in the food industry in Dubai. During 2016, Dubai’s Food Safety Department decided to use an innovative approach to change the food safety standard of 450 food establishments, which were continuously, evaluated as “unsatisfactory” consecutively in the last 3 years.

Happiness Food Safety Inspection – An Innovative Approach
A major issue observed in retail food safety inspections in Dubai, as well as in other countries, is improper behaviors, as the workforce is made up of food handlers from very different cultures, nationalities, languages, and backgrounds. As it has been documented in the literature, that conventional inspection approach does not necessarily change human behavior. A different approach was desired to deal with these 450 establishments. The Dubai Municipality’s Food Inspection Section created an innovative idea founded on behavioral science principles called the “Happiness Inspection.” This approach was intended to align with the nation’s values and strategy. It placed less emphasis on discipline and fines—and more on education, positive reinforcement, and support.

A team of “happy inspectors” was created for the task to implement this innovative idea, which broke with retail food safety inspection tradition. The main purpose of the innovative approach was to utilize a more behavior-based approach to food safety inspections in an attempt to improve the food safety scores of unsatisfactory premises. The “happy inspectors” visited these establishments, analyzed the root causes of the nonconformities, conducted regular meetings with the establishment’s top management, advised suitable and acceptable solutions for the   rectification of prevailing violations, and gave a reasonable time to the establishment to implement corrective actions.

An evident improvement was noticed in the food safety standards in these establishments with above 95 percent achieved “Satisfactory” food safety scores within 24 months. A significant improvement (P < 0.05) was observed in the food safety standards, that is, cross-contamination, cleaning and disinfection, pest control, etc. A substantial improvement was also noticed in food safety culture inside these food premises. The next routine inspection reports showed noticeable improvement in the grade and color cards issued to these premises. This initiative led to serving of approximately 32,850,000 safe meals per year to the consumers. In addition to the improvement, the innovative idea also helped to understand and improve shortcomings in the regular routine inspection system.

Uniqueness of the Happiness Innovation
The traditional retail food safety approach of levying penalties and fines served as a way to “pay” for noncompliance, but it wasn’t changing the behavior of workers or the food safety culture of the food establishment. We realized that only by effecting genuine change in the behaviors of management and food handlers could be successful in embedding food safety within the establishment’s culture, which ultimately brings about meaningful and sustained improvement. It was decided that the normal inspection approach of giving fines for the nonconformities would not be used for these premises.

This innovative idea also has uniqueness in that the happiness food safety inspection was more like teaching and coaching, rather than simply conducting an audit. The top management, mostly owners of the establishment, became more involved and the importance of food safety was better realized by them. It is also a way to encourage behaviors, which the behavioral sciences show tend to work better than simply focusing on negative reinforcement. Dubai Municipality has received excellent feedback regarding this new, more positive reinforcing approach.

This idea is also assisted regulatory authorities in planning new specialized training to improve the inspection approach. We also believe that it has enhanced food hygiene practices inside establishments by particular techniques, that is, meetings with top management, proper coaching, guidance, and regular follow-ups. It has also facilitated our ability to positively influence facility layout or menu changes when needed to strengthen compliance.

Sultan Ali Al Taher, M.Sc., is the Head of Food Inspection Section in Dubai Municipality Food Safety Department. He has been working in Dubai Municipality Food Safety Department since April 1999. He completed his M.Sc. in food safety management from Higher Colleges of Technology, Dubai, UAE.