By Yaseen Omer and Hemin Baqir in Sulaimaninyah (ICR No. 134, 27-Jul-05)
The removal of customs checkpoints is responsible for the flood of poor quality food currently sweeping Iraq and making people sick, say health officials.
Both market stalls and stores are selling expired products, even in Iraqi Kurdistan which was thought to have a better quality control system than elsewhere in Iraq.
Before the American-led invasion in 2003, Kurdistan had several customs checkpoints where food items were stored until samples tested by the directorate of health showed that they were safe for consumption.
But the Americans removed them after the fall of the Saddam regime, paving the way for poor quality food items to enter the region.
Kamran Muhammed Jafar, 27, said he has been ill with food poisoning twice in three months after eating honey and cream. His family members have also been sick.
"The market is full of bad food," he said. "In the past, people said food sold on the carts was bad but now the food sold at shops is no better."
Fatimah Abdullah, 70, was ill after eating cheese bought at the market. "It was an expensive food so I thought it was good," she said. "I will never buy it again."
Hawkar Salahaddin, a shopkeeper on Sheikh Mahmood Street in Sulaimaniyah, acknowledged the markets are full of bad and expired food products. He said that even items distributed as part of the food ration are of poor quality.
"This month's rice for the food ration is expired and it is not good for eating," he said.
Similar problems occurred during the Oil-for-Food programme when Iraq was also inundated with expired and inferior quality items that made many people ill.
The Kurdistan region sought help from the World Health Organisation to set up a quality control system, but was turned away as Kurdistan is not a sovereign nation.
Wishiar Sabeer, of the Food Science Department at the University of Sulaimaniyah, blames the government, accusing it of negligence for not solving the problem.
But the Sulaimaniyah administration insists it is making an effort, setting up health observation teams that go to markets and confiscate bad or expired products.
"Though we haven't been able to control this issue 100 per cent, our teams have been able to seize food stuff in the market that is not good for eating and was brought in without our knowledge," said Dr Rizgar Ali Jadrees, a public health official, who is among a number of Iraqis taking part in a ministry of health/WHO programme aimed at setting up a quality control system.
Salar Abdullah Mustafa, a merchant on Kaneskan Street in Sulaimaniyah, believes the government inspections are working, "Bad stuff comes to the market but health inspectors are very strict, and they seldom let bad stuff be sold."
Yaseen Omer and Hemin Baqir are IWPR trainees in Sulaimaninyah.