Monday, August 11, 2008

Dirty food that's really dirty

This is my column today.

It sounded like a great idea so all of us in the committee jumped at it: Make dirty ice cream available all day long for all employees, clients, and everyone else who entered the bank’s premises during its recent anniversary. We got so excited at the idea—and why not? Dirty ice cream is so Filipino, the tinkling of that all-too-familiar bell rekindles shared Pinoy childhood memories. Best of all, it is cheap. In these difficult times, an eat-all-you-can offering is something that costs an arm and a leg so at a few thousand bucks a cart, offering dirty ice cream sounded patok na patok (a bestseller).

For a while there, we thought we would have to pound the streets to round up a dozen individual mamang sorbetero from the street for our anniversary. But we were heartened to discover that most of the dirty ice cream that’s peddled in our streets comes from a handful of factories so contracting a supplier was relatively simpler that we thought. We talked to a few suppliers on the phone and got excited to learn that we could even choose whatever flavors we wanted —from cookies and cream, to a variety of fruits in season even including, yehey, atis and avocado.

The simplicity of the process—no bidding necessary, no added hassles about choosing menus and food sampling and all that plus the relatively cheaper cost—inspired us so that we decided to push the idea further. We thought of adding more “dirty food” to the offering. We decided to also offer taho and cotton candy. We were beside ourselves with glee and took to congratulating ourselves for being creative.

Then someone thought of visiting the factories. He remembered watching some “Imbestigador” episodes which showed the filthy conditions that attended the production of these street food offerings. We prevaricated for a while because we figure that if these food offerings were so unsafe, an epidemic of monstrous proportions would have already hit the country a long time ago. We grew up eating dirty ice cream and taho straight from ambulant peddlers, didn’t we? And we’re all still alive and kicking. Millions of kids still do so today.

But since we were offering the food to everyone including clients, we thought it wouldn’t hurt to be doubly sure about safety. It can’t be all that bad, we kept on reassuring ourselves. We were prepared to see some grime and sweaty workers in the factories, all of which we were prepared to ignore. We so wanted to make the idea work and were prepared to justify whatever filthy conditions would meet us at the factories.

So off we went. We first visited two dirty ice cream “factories” somewhere in Pasay City. The quotation marks are in order because there is absolutely no way that those places would ever qualify as factories. The first one we visited was a makeshift structure in the middle of a squatter colony. Filthy does not even begin to describe the place. The ingredients were simply strewn around on tables and benches, the floor was not even paved, and horror of all horror, the water that was being used in the process came from a deep well because the place didn’t have a water connection. We were served ice cream, of course, which suddenly looked unappetizing.

The second “factory” we visited was better only because at least it was housed in a structure that looked solid enough. Unfortunately, concrete walls and a tin roof are not enough to produce quality products. There was a water connection, the floors were paved, and it wasn’t in a squatter colony. But the same conditions were present: Grimy machines that looked like they were last cleaned when Marcos was still dictator, wet and dirty floors, half naked workers whose bodies seemed to be the source of the salt needed in the production process. I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the drift.

Our hearts sank. The inspired idea didn’t sound so great all of a sudden. The taho factories weren’t any better. We didn’t see plaster of paris among the ingredients although we couldn’t say for certain that it wasn’t used as the binding ingredient in the food production process. But for a food product that is supposed to be mainly derived from soy beans, we noted that there didn’t seem to be that many soy beans around.

We had to ditch the idea pronto. And quite frankly, I don’t think I will be able to eat nor allow any of my nephews or nieces to eat dirty ice cream or taho—at least the ones peddled in the streets—in this lifetime.

Fortunately, we discovered that those stalls in the malls that sell soft ice cream also provided party packages. We settled for that. And we still had a number of cotton candy machines. So we were still able to have a unique anniversary celebration.

Still, the whole experience validated what the description “dirty” in dirty ice cream really means. It’s not a figurative description; that I can assure you of.

I know that our government agencies have too many things to worry about; but surely, something as basic as the food that’s being sold on the streets deserves attention and closer scrutiny. The factories we visited all had the necessary permits and licenses issued by the appropriate government agencies, but I doubt if anyone from these agencies bothered to check the production capabilities of these businesses before issuing or renewing their business permits and licenses. No one in his right mind, or at least no one who knows someone who eats this street fare, would ever allow these businesses to operate once they get a glimpse of the filthy and miserable conditions that attend their production.

There’s a long list of food stuff that I am now certain are produced under the same questionable conditions and processes including tokwa, sago, and a variety of other candies and delicacies. We already know that those ice-based refreshments such as ice scramble are not fit for human consumption. I stopped buying boiled corn and peanuts from street vendors because I once saw someone scoop water from a public fountain to boil them with.

Majority in Metro Manila buy drinking water from the water purifying businesses that have suddenly sprouted in our neighborhoods. But given my recent experience, I have started to have doubts about whether the bottled water that’s being sold is actually purified. I have this nagging suspicion that many of these businesses simply fill those plastic containers with tap water.
I wonder what it will take for government agencies to really do their jobs and ensure that the food that’s being sold for public consumption is safe. Not an outbreak, I hope.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Man, that's gross. Sayang. I love dirty ice cream pa naman, and the taho too. - jt

Anonymous said...

I've been suspecting that way. . . kaya lang masarap talaga i-sandwich ang dirty ice cream sa slice bread. Go for a branded ice cream na lang.