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Checking public health is a never-ending task

When the Magistri Sanitatis was set up in 1538, it monitored the construction of sewage and drinking water systems but, five centuries on, environmental health officers cover homes, work and publicplaces. Sarah Carabott joins a kitchen and water inspection at a local hotel.

Loaded with checklists, previous audit notes, testing equipment and hygienic wear, environmental health officer Dennis Grech and principal Alistair Lowell head to a busy hotel kitchen.

Even letters from abroad were once dipped in vinegar for disinfectant

They need to check apertures and ceiling conditions, food traceability documents and make sure food handlers are wearing overalls and have passed all necessary courses.

They will also be on the lookout for wash-hand basins, which should be separate from cutlery and crockery basins, just as raw and cooked food is stored separately in fridges and freezers.

It takes the officers four hours to inspect every crevice and corner, go through documents mapping where pest baits have been set up, test freezer temperatures and make sure chefs are using the right chopping boards.

The officers even check that the pest control company’s treatment records are in place and that there is no risk of chemical contamination.

The hotel is also expected to carry out a private audit of food safety risks – from the moment the food is delivered to the kitchen until it is served at the restaurants – which the officers inspect thoroughly during their visit.

The inspection makes sure the hotel is abiding by the law and grades the kitchen. If it is assigned a very low grade, the kitchen will be monitored and inspected more frequently.

The environmental health directorate can also issue the premises with an undertaking, which is similar to a contract obliging the hotel or restaurant to rectify its illegalities. Legal action will be taken if it refuses to follow the directorate’s advice.

But, luckily, it is nowhere near as harsh as it was 500 years ago. In those days, when people disobeyed environmental and health inspection orders or were caught trafficking products off quarantined ships, penalties included burning their homes.

Documents also show that anyone caught throwing trash on the road in Valletta in 1586 had to pay a fine.

In those days, to prevent contamination, letters received from abroad were dipped in vinegar for disinfection or exposed to burning straw fumes, a mixture of manganese and a solution of sulphuric acid.

But Malta’s reputation of public health excellence dates back even further. During the 13th and 14th centuries, under the Aragonese rule, there were already officials responsible for food quality.

More than 500 years later, when cholera was suffocating the island during the British rule, John Sutherland found organic matter in the villages’ water tanks. When he tested the water, he discovered many cholera deaths were related to a contaminated supply. Nowadays, the directorate carries out similar tests at hotels and other establishments to check for legionella.

These audits are held on a regular basis every year if there are no complaints.

Principal environmental health officer John Scerri explains that the legionella bacteria is found in water and if inhaled could lead to legionellosis, which exhibits symptoms similar to pneumonia or even death.

Together with senior health officer Marvic Hili, Mr Scerri heads to the maintenance manager’s office to take a look at the water plant room and discuss the legionella risk manual.

The inspectors then have to check dead ends where water is most likely to collect and shower heads in random rooms.

They also test the water’s chlorine levels, temperatures and descaling or cleaning methods and make sure there are no contamination risks.

The hotel has to take a monthly sample of its spa and pool water and while the directorate ensures the laboratory employed by the hotel is accredited, the inspectors could also take a sample to test it out themselves.

Apart from making sure there is enough chlorine to kill any bacteria in the pools and that the system is disinfected weekly, the officers would also check the indoor pool’s humidity level.

Lastly, the officers ensure adequate rules and signage are put up around the pools, which should inform patrons to shower before getting in and where to find first aid help if needed.

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