With millions of eateries, serving hundreds of different items of food, attempting standardization, uniformity and safety can be a nightmare for any government. But consumer welfare demands that eventually these eateries as well as the foods they serve satisfy the customers without compromising on safety. Though no one knows precisely how many eateries are operating in India due to lack of dependable statistics, globally the restaurant industry is worth $ 800 billion employing 60 million people. Some estimates place Indian restaurant industry's worth at $16.7 billion or Rs 700 billion which is one fifth of what China has but this must be a gross under estimate considering the widespread operation of millions of dhabas, darshinis and small sized eateries spanning the country serving a population of almost 300 million living in the urban areas.
Eateries are generally graded either based on a star system or an 'A to C' scale or number scale or color coding through out the world and in most cases the grading reflects more on the culinary quality of foods served, ignoring critical aspects like hygiene and sanitation. A restaurant with A grade or category I or green color code is supposed to be safest and most ambient suggesting customers can derive maximum eating pleasure there. Interestingly cities like New York are reputed for their restaurants but the citizens there are reported to be not the happier lots compared to smaller places with no reputation for high end restaurants suggesting that eating out in good and reputed restaurants cannot ensure good quality life.
The move by FSSAI is indeed timely and appropriate considering that food service sector in India does not enjoy a good reputation and restaurant foods are invariably associated with bad hygiene and indifferent quality. While tourists from abroad are faced with the problem of choosing safe eating joints when they visit the country, discerning domestic tourists are also faced with the same piquant situation. Here is where chain restaurants score over others because of the reputation built by them due to their self efforts in providing good quality and safer foods to their customers. But such restaurants are far and few and a country wide system of grading needs to be put in place sooner than later in the interest of the consumers. Any grading by a government agency must be restricted to safety aspects leaving the gastronomic grading to the consumers who will flock those serving tasty and enjoyable foods.
According to the FSSAI proposal, announced recently, claimed as a 'Safe Food, Tasty Food' scheme, wants to set up specific guidelines for small restaurants and dhabas to upgrade their standard of food to international level.The scheme is expected to put in place a grading system that will rate food joints as platinum, gold, silver and bronze or A to D scale and the Quality Council of India (QCI) is supposed to do the accreditation after strict scrutiny of different parameters like quality of food, hygiene, service and a few others like hand washing, serving procedures, cleaning process, waste disposal practices etc. From the look of it the grading is not going to be mandatory as those aspiring for a grade will have to "apply" to FSSAI. The scheme appears over ambitious as it wants to give the benefit of grading even to dhabas and smaller eating joints. There may be a rush to get the top grade since it also means economic gains for those receiving good grades.
What is not clear in this novel approach is the logistics involved in translating the paper scheme into a practical, workable, reliable and sustaining operation. The primary responsibility of FSSAI is to set quality and safety standards for foods in the country and operate a workable system to implement them through state machinery with adequate qualified and experienced monitors in the field and sound infrastructure for food analysis. If FSSAI takes it work seriously, priority needs to be given to tackle the organized sector first and then spread its activity to informal sector players. Also it is not certain that the frenzy with which the scheme is announced on the eve of Commonwealth Games being organized in Delhi will be evident after the event is over, for its country wide implementation. The task is Herculean but can be achieved if there is sufficient seriousness, a long term planning, massive involvement of technical personnel and adequate investment. If any government thinks that such mammoth projects can be undertaken with the scanty staff it has for the purpose, the situation is ripe for a disaster! Probably there has to be a different approach involving accredited and reputed private agencies with earmarked responsibilities in different regions of the country to shoulder the responsibility of operationalizing the excellent concept initiated by GOI.