Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Restaurant goers in India rarely imagine that food served to them can pose health dangers of different type because there is no credible system that ensures regular inspection of these establishments for corrective measures in the facilities and safety compliance. According to the present practices, any one intending to set up a restaurant has to get a license from the local health authorities in the municipality presided over by a health official who has to inspect the facilities with regard to the cleanliness and other aspects of the establishment. Once the restaurant starts functioning the same group, often grossly understaffed, are supposed to monitor the quality of foods served with regard to their safety to the consumers but such inspections are far and few giving practically a free hand to the restaurants in running the establishment. Because there are not serious calamity reported in the media, every one assumes that restaurant foods are safe. Are they?

Probably there are thousands of violations of food safety regulations that go unnoticed and the Indian consumers must have developed a high degree of resistance to any microbial hazard posed by these foods. Being a resilient society, Indian customer rarely complains which further strengthens the belief by the restaurant operators that every thing is fine. Only time violations surface is when flies are found in coffee or cockroach parts are seen in food preparations or other visible signs of food contamination. If stomach upsets or similar minor ailments are noticed after a visit to a restaurant, invariably they are attributed to other causes as it takes at least 24 hours for the symptoms to manifest. Added to this, the consumers, most of them are never aware of the authorities with whom any complaint has to be filed as there are no display of the address or the phone details of the local health authority and even if complaints are made by a diligent customer, it is almost certain that nothing will out of it. Such a situation creates an environment when the consumers take all the incidences of safety hazards in their stride. The PFA Act 1956 does contain stringent provisions for deterrent punishment but in practice such indictments are far and few but almost all cases booked are for breaking standards like fat in milk,moisture in dal, adulterated ghee, edible oil quality etc which at least does not pose serious health hazards. Probably it is much easier to book these cases than hauling up the operators foods contaminated with pathogens.

Is there no remedy for such a situation? The organization of Commonwealth Games in Deli in October 2010 appears to have provided an impetus for at least thinking of improving the safety compliance by the restaurant sector because of the imminent visit by many foreign participants who are supposed to have more delicate "stomach" than Indians, vulnerable to contaminated foods. The FSSAI had announced almost an year ago that Delhi restaurants would be provided with a system of grading that would be displayed prominently for the customers to decide before entering whether the establishment is trustworthy. Since the scheme was voluntary not even a single restaurant bothered to register for getting the grade, probably because of doubts in their own mind regarding the quality of infrastructure they have vis-a-vis the ability to maintain the standards expected. It is possible that the authorities may eventually go for making such grading mandatory. Of course safety of restaurant foods is a concern not only in India but all over the world for which many remedies are suggested from time to time. Unfortunately the problem in India is much more serious than that in many other countries. Even water served in most of the restaurants is not trustworthy regarding its potability and very few customers drink water in restaurants because of fear of stomach infection.

A ray of hope is emerging with the involvement of private sector in assessing the quality of a restaurant, beginning in Delhi because of the imminent Commonwealth Games. These private players are aiming to do something concrete so that foreign tourists get foods of international standards in food safety and hygiene during this period. The new program,under the banner 'Safe Food Destination', has been launched by the consultancy TQS Global Management System under which restaurants can voluntarily get themselves registered under the program for an year. Auditing and Monitor teams of the TSQ is assuring the restaurant owners that they would help them in maintaining food safety by educating staff through workshops, interaction and consultations. Under a scoring system a restaurant has to obtain a minimum of 40% in order to obtain a food safety certificate from TQS.

Basic facts regarding food safety practices involved in buying good quality raw materials, safe handling methods, precautions in storing, cleaning up of the facilities, personnel hygiene etc are expected to be dinned into the ears of the staff. The agency would be awarding the marks which is expected to go up every time its auditing team comes for inspection. A 75% mark will translate into silver grading, 85% getting golden while 95% would be eligible for the highest grade of platinum. One of the remarkable features of this scheme is the provision for some form of a consumer insurance which is new in a country like India which entitles the consumer to prefer limited claims towards any mishap or illness arising out of food safety issues in TQS registered outlets. This can be expected to give some peace of mind to the consumers as he is insured against any health injury arising out of food borne disease which puts only limited liability on the restaurant. In case of illness after eating at a registered member's restaurant, TQS will probe the incident and if found guilty of violation of safety norms, the registration is liable be cancelled. Unlike FSAAI's scheme, the agency claims that many restaurants in Delhi are registering with them for the program.

The initiative by the private sector is indeed laudable and it must be encouraged by the government. TSQ has good credentials as a quality management player with successes achieved in other countries like Bulgaria and Maldives in this area and even if FSSAI wants to continue with its own scheme, the private sector must be allowed to continue the operation which should be taken as complimentary to strengthen safety assurance programs in the country. Such programs must be extended to all over the country, though the movement may be some what slow to begin with. Probably more organizations in the private sector need to be roped in for such a system with pan India foot print. Even if the private ventures do succeed eventually, it will still have limited spread as only high end restaurants may be able to afford the certification system which costs about Rs 50000 for registration leaving more than 80% of the restaurants out side the ambit of such voluntary surviellance. The responsibility of the government to enforce safety standards in this segment still remains and the infrastructure for fulfilling this obligation must be strengthened.


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