Thursday, July 29, 2010


Foods offered during traveling in trains or planes can at best be "edible" and it may be too much to expect high end foods during journeys. The logistics involved are so awesome that access to safe foods should itself be considered a plus point. Imagine the practicality of preparing adequate foods for more than 1500 passengers in a long distance train, especially if the travel takes more than 24 hours. Those who travel by trains expect hot foods to be served with high eating quality besides ensuring their safety. In India railway passengers in many long haul trains are served hot foods by private caterers as well as the in-house catering group of Indian Railways (IR). In a huge operation like the one undertaken by IR some degree of dissatisfaction is bound to be there but allowing the passengers to express disgust at the quality of foods served is some thing IR must avoid and it is in this context one has to understand the recent decision by IR to take over catering in all trains by the zonal railway units as an in-house operation. How far this will ameliorate the situation remains to be seen.

The old system of attaching pantry cars to important trains provided the passengers with some comfort and convenience and it is unfortunate that IR in its relentless pursuit of profit found it expedient to discontinue the pantry car system some years ago. One can only remember with nostalgia the old comfort of traveling cross country journey enjoying meals and snacks at any time with access to the pantry car through the vestibuled trains. Forming of the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation sounded the death knell for the pantry car system. IRCTC, after setting up a series of Base Kitchens in different centers was doing a reasonably decent job till it was divested of its responsibilities recently by IR accusing it of negligence and mismanagement. Such unilateral action cannot be expected to improve railway catering as the malaise is much deeper than what IR thinks.

The quality of food, its safety, presentation, delivery and customer-end service, all could have been improved if a thorough review was made to identify the reasons for the innumerable complaints filed by thousands of passengers during the last couple of years. While quality is important, more emphasis needs to be placed on minimum taste threshold acceptable and guarantee of safety and this can be achieved only through large scale deployment of experienced and knowledgeable personnel. The preparation environment in base kitchens, quality of raw materials used, mode of preparation, hygienic and sanitation aspect at all levels are not as per standard norms for large scale food preparation facilities. Besides there is no over seeing authority for bringing to books defaulters as railway catering is beyond the reach of licensing and safety surveillance authorities in the country. IR does not seem to have a clue regarding these issues.

Of course the quality of foods served in trains and planes cannot be expected to be same as home-made preparations or those offered by standard restaurants but the traveling public has a right to be assured that at leas they are free from filth and contaminants and safe with no risk to lives. While a country like India can take consolation that its technological reach and capabilities are growing slowly and there is considerable scope for improvement in future, look at the condition else where in the world. While scrutinizing the standard of catering in the aviation sector in the US where three private caterers operate 91 kitchens that provide more than 100 million meals annually to U.S. and foreign airlines at U.S. airports, several deficiencies were observed reflecting the deteriorating safety environment in these catering facilities. Some of the defaults noted include storage of food at improper temperatures, use of unclean equipment, employing workers who practice poor hygiene, presence of roaches, flies and other infestation vectors. It is to be expected that the industry would deny such wrong doings because the operating system is designed to ensure food safety though at individual levels there might be occasional violations.

Air travelers have every right to expect foods of quality comparable to restaurant foods because of the high cost budgeted for catering service by major airline companies. While the foods served by the airline companies in India are considered satisfying to most of the passengers as these are sourced from some of the best hotel chains in the country, many of the US airlines do not serve food free any more because of the present economic crunch and even for a payment only standardized unappealing food packs are offered.


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