I have a huge culinary weakness; it’s a North American staple and if overindulged in, will lead to obesity, high-blood pressure, diabetes, gout and early death. It’s a slab of grilled mincemeat topped with lettuce, tomatoes, dill pickles and gooey cheese and encased in a bun a.k.a a ‘cheeseburger’. On Monday I drove to my favourite fast food place, ‘Mr. Chips’ in Kicukiro, expecting my weekly dose of a ‘heart-attack in a bun’. Imagine my ire when I found that the cheeseburger didn’t have cheese. I thought the proprietor was being a bit of a cheapskate so I put him to task. That’s when I found that Mr. Chips’s burgers didn’t have cheese because almost all locally made cheese was removed from store shelves by the Rwanda Bureau of Standards (RBS).
I thought he was just making excuses (and trying to make an extra few coins) and this feeling continued when I called a friend of mine who works at the Ministry of Health, who denied all knowledge about the cheese issue. He however suggested that I talk to the good people at RBS, something I did (although I must admit that I didn’t expect to get any information; very few organisations have a pro-media stance. I was pleasantly surprised to find discover that RBS is one of the good ones).
Mr. Philip Nzaire, the RBS Director of Quality Assurance, confirmed Mr. Chips’s story. He informed me, in a cordial telephone interview, that various brands of local cheese had been removed off shop shelves, during a February exercise, because they were, and I quote, “contaminated with bacteria, resulting from poor processing and handling”. So, if you are planning a wine and cheese tasting party, you will be forced to buy imported fromage for a while. The RBS will simply not allow bacteria-infested cheese unto our plates; and all I can say is, “good for them”.
Mr. Nzaire complained that many cheese producers didn’t only lack high-tech, modern machinery but also failed to do some of the simple things, such as use clean water and boiled milk when making the cheese. When I asked him when we would be able to eat some locally made Gouda cheese, he had this to say, “as long as they [the cheese producers] are ready to improve their practices and call us to inspect them, we shall allow them to sell their produce”.
What really shocks me is this, why did RBS act so late? The mere fact that they had to remove each and every slab of cheese from our local stores and supermarkets, though commendable, is also regrettable. It means that the issues of standards weren’t drummed into the heads of the cheese producers in the first place. How could they not have been able to make sure the producers were making good products? The real issue I think is professional standards in the cheese-making industry.
Thank god no one has complained about food-poisoning caused by unhygienic cheese producers because if it had happened, the local cheese industry could have been damaged irrevocably. I mean, if E-coli or Salmonella had been found you could rest assured that no hotel or restaurant would have trusted local cheese. And neither would I.
I think that RBS should work with the Ministry of Trade to make sure that our local industries produce hygienic, quality goods. We cannot afford to handicap ourselves; local industries already have enough issues dealing with cheaper imports. They mustn’t make life harder for themselves. We must do everything to make sure that the ‘Made in Rwanda’ label signifies quality. There is no two ways about it.