India is known for the diversity of foods consumed by different ethnic groups spread across the country. In the absence of reliable figures, it has been suggested that there are over 5000 such foods and if variations in recipes is taken into account the number may go beyond 1 lakh. But no one can vouch safe for this number because the ethnic food sector is a much neglected one with hardly any attention from the government or the scientific community. According to National Association of Street Vendors (NASVI) there are over 10 million street vendors alone spread across thousands of towns and cities serving at least hundred different types of food preparations, mostly cooked and served on the side of major road net works frequented by people. Added to these there are over a million small, medium and big restaurants in the country with a decent roof over them attracting a billion customers every day.
It is very true that Indians do not have the habit of frequently eating out side their homes and such eating when it happens may be far and few. It is estimated that number of visits to restaurants by a family may vary from once or twice a year to a week in a month depending the affluence and disposable incomes. Compared to earlier generations, many nucleus families emerging from the shadows of their parents are increasingly patronizing restaurants because of affluence and lesser time available for home cooking due to their work place demands. In contrast, in some countries, especially in South East Asia, the kitchen size is shrinking rapidly while in many new residential complexes no kitchen is provided at all making the population dependent on foods cooked away from home.
Against such a background, India can rightly be "proud" that food safety poisoning cases are far and few compared to those in many "sanitized" countries like USA and Europe. This could be due to under reporting of food poisoning incidences or attributed to the "tough" gastrointestinal features that make them immune to even the worst quality of foods served to them! Whether the street food vendor or the under the roof food provider, there is much to be desired as far their hygienic and sanitation standards are concerned. Filthy kitchen, unsafe water and utensils, sub standard ingredients, unhygienic personnel, dirty serving tables etc make these eateries a veritable "danger" spots for those with weak stomachs! One redeeming feature is that Indian cuisine is basically "hot food based" with the heat killing most of the pathogens which might have contaminated the food before cooking.
With free availability of cheap drugs that can control stomach upsets, most food related episodes never reach the doors of a physician or a hospital and therefore do not enter into record books. It is a fact that a few drugs which are banned all over the world are still available in the country across the counter of a pharmacy store and people do not seem to be so much bothered about minor episodes of stomach upset caused by consuming food preparations from a street vendor or a small time restaurant. Incidences of common diarrhea, jaundice and other GI related episodes, mostly caused by contaminated water are becoming less frequent with the popularity of bottled drinking water carrying the safety mark of ISI.
When the FSSAI rules were promulgated every eatery was supposed to have a registration or license for operation and it is almost two years since the rules were promulgated. Though the time period for complying with these rules were extended from time to time, the government (GOI) assumed a belligerent posture refusing to give further extension for licensing beyond February 4 2014. However GOI eventually buckled under pressure from the food service industry extending the last date further to august 4 this year. Two critical questions that demand answers involve what the industry was doing for the last several years when the contours of the rules were being framed and why the FSSAI did not anticipate the so called problems being aired by the industry now?
A charitable view may be that FSSAI is conceding the point that operating the food safety system has some practical difficulties. If so extending the last date must be appreciated. But there is a feeling that no one in the country is taking FSSAI seriously and hence this prevarication and obfuscation! On the face of it the FSSAI provision for compulsory registration has a justification because this only can trace the origin of any mishap, if and when occurs, to its source. On the other hand every trade in a civic area requires local licensing and why this arrangement cannot be used in disciplining the eateries within their areas? It is argued that eateries are already burdened by many punitive rules under the state dispensation and FSSAI regulatory rules are obviously an added burden to them. It is as well that government of India has a re-look at the food regulatory regime in the country and address the problems of all stake holders.