Insects in food, food poisoning, unhygienic conditions in hotels…A take on the dismal scenario

‘Hey, wait a minute, I forgot to tell you something,’ I shouted to my friend on the phone as she was about to hang up. My voice rose from contralto to soprano as I tried to make myself heard before she put down the receiver and she mistook the high pitch for excited delight.

Startled and curious, she came back on the line. Relieved I had secured my audience, I continued in the same pitch, ‘Yesterday I found a cockroach in my oats!’ My tone was almost as if I had found the Kohinoor on my plate.

‘What?’ She exclaimed, shocked. ‘In your food too?’ These days newspapers are full of disturbing reports on the discovery of insects and pesticides in food and the resultant food poisoning. The saddest case has been that of the unfortunate children in a Bihar school who died after eating poisoned food. The only bright side to this – if tragedies on such a scale can be said to have a bright side at all – is that it united the whole country, as no political party could, in a general feeling of shock and outrage. The public outcry caused food inspectors to conduct surprise raids on hotels.

In Kerala these raids had begun months back after the tragic death of a student from food poisoning. The media came up with details of what we have always suspected – that in many hotel and hostel kitchens, food was being cooked in unhygienic conditions, poor quality raw materials were being used and old, stale food was being merrily recycled. The shutters of some transgressing Thiruvananthapuram hotels were downed.

I was pleased to detect the concern in her voice as she continued, ‘What did you do?’

‘I threw it away,’ I replied. ‘You should have called someone.’

I said I had called out to my husband who had replied he wasn’t hungry and would have breakfast after a while.

‘No, no’, she said, sounding impatient, ‘I meant someone official.’

‘Who? I mean, whom? I only know these three numbers - 100 is police, 101 is fire and 102 is ambulance. I don’t think the occasion called for any of those.’

Sarcastically saying 102 would have come in handy if I had eaten the insect, she said she meant consumer care. She was flush from her triumph of getting a replacement for the ready-to- cook samosas that she had bought and which had passed on to the first stage of decomposition in the packet itself. She had alerted the shop that had sold her the packet and was put through to the manufacturer’s office in another city. Someone there hastily assured her they would make amends and before matters reached the media, she was brought two packets of fresh samosas that very evening. ‘Two, would you believe it?’

Oh, wow, now two giant packets of oats for me! The last pack I had bought had been a two kilo pack. She urged me to check the cover of the oats packet for the phone number. But I had already thrown away the refill cover. And for the life of me, I couldn’t recollect the brand name. I generally pick the nearest packet on the shelf.

Besides, something else had begun to trouble me. I told her I wasn’t sure if the cockroach had come from the oats or had fallen in as I was cooking it- the oats, I mean, not the cockroach.

My house has quite an impressive tenancy of creatures – ants, lizards, cockroaches, snails, an occasional millipede or a passing centipede that sashays in to say hello… I had once spotted a rat in the kitchen, a rat snake in the compound and a mongoose scurrying along the wall, all on the same day, the three creatures obviously leading healthy and individually exclusive lives.

‘I’m not so sure,’ I continued uncertainly, ‘it hadn’t fallen in. It was a very tiny one, pale and fragile looking. Looked stiff. Of course that could have been because it got cooked…’

‘Spare me those disgusting details,’ she cut me short. ‘But tell me, how do you feel today?’ I said I’ve never felt better. There was a pause. She mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out as she put down the receiver, but it sounded suspiciously like ‘You should have been born in China.’