Food safety laws ignored by roadside eateries, but action is not imminent

They emerge at dusk, steam hissing from idli cookers and the aroma of popular dishes wafting on public nostrils. If Madurai is the “city that never sleeps,” the street food vendors ensure that those who prowl the streets at night are fed.

Not many can resist the lip-smacking food served at these outlets, and if anyone loathes it, it can only be for reasons of hygiene.

Cooks dripping with sweat while preparing food, cooking assistants scratching their face, head and hair while handling food items and bearers serving drinking water with their fingers dipped inside the glass are among the deterring factors.

It is to ensure the availability of safe and hygienic food that the Centre enacted the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) 2006, a comprehensive legislation that consolidates eight other food related legislations, including the Prevention of Adulteration Act, 1954.

Regulations framed under the Act require employees of street food outlets to maintain personal hygiene, wear clean clothes, sport headgear, cover their mouths, keep their nails trimmed and wash their hands with soap and water before commencing work, touching food or after using the toilet.

Employees should also wear aprons and gloves and anyone suffering from an infectious disease is not allowed to work. Smoking, spitting and blowing the nose on the premises are prohibited.

The vending units should not be located near unhygienic places, and refrigerators must be cleaned at least once a week.

Unaware

In order to keep a check on tea and coffee served in glasses rinsed in dirty water, the regulations stipulate that water used for cleaning, washing and preparing food should be potable. However, the effective implementation of the Act remains elusive even after seven years since its enactment. Reason? A majority of street food vendors are unaware of its provisions.

The Hindu spoke to a number of roadside vendors, including S. Krishnan who has been running a roadside eatery at Anna Nagar here for the last 23 years, K. Sakunthala who sells amla juice at K. Pudur main road and R. Mani, a ‘vadai’ vendor at Vishwanathapuram. They are all unaware of the duties imposed on them under the law.

Initially, enforcement of the Act itself was delayed by five years due to stiff opposition from various quarters and it was notified in the government gazette only in August 2011. Even after that, it has not come into operation with full force as the mammoth exercise of granting licences and registering those in the food business is currently under way and is expected to go on until February 4, 2014.

J. Suguna, Designated Officer assigned with the responsibility of implementing the Act in the district, says that more than 18,000 establishments and individuals have to either obtain licences or register under the enactment. However, so far only 7,000 have registered and 1,800 have obtained licences.

Barring farmers, fishermen and members of registered dairy cooperative societies, the Act encompasses every other individual who manufactures, stores, transports and sells food items for commercial purposes.

While those with an annual turnover of over Rs.12 lakh must obtain a licence, others should be registered and follow the statutory rules prescribed for them.

Registration

Those who need to register on payment of an annual fee of Rs.100 include hawkers selling eatables outside school campuses, ‘murukku’ and ‘vadai’ sellers at political gatherings, people who set up popcorn stalls at trade fairs, contractors managing canteens in educational institutions and other places, homemakers supplying ‘biriyani’ on order and cooks preparing ‘prasadam’ at temples.

Even government-run ration shops are not exempt. “The newly introduced budget canteens would fall under the enactment,” says V. Yasodha Mani, City Health Officer, Madurai Municipal Corporation. The liquor shops run by Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) and the bars attached to them will also be covered, adds Ms. Suguna.

Since the Act covers bigger establishments such as food processing units and hotels, some of the trade bodies have expressed apprehension over the stringent penal provisions of the Act being used to punish honest traders.

Punishment

“While there can be no doubt about the need to provide safe and hygienic food to the general public, our only concern is the prescription of stringent punishment, such as imprisonment up to life, and imposition of fines up to Rs. 10 lakh for certain offences,” says S. Rethinavelu, senior president, Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

On the other hand, Pratyasha Chakravarthy, a counsellor attached to the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) Food and Agriculture Centre of Excellence, says that traders need not worry about the law if they strengthen their safety management system and make it robust. Food dealers must follow good manufacturing practices and good hygiene.

“The spirit behind FSSA is to shift the stress from policing to self-regulation and ultimately make it a national movement,” she says and points out that this year 20 street vendors had applied for CII’s National Award for Food Safety and four of them were from Tamil Nadu. Last year, a bakery at Tihar Jail in New Delhi qualified for the award.

Rohini Sridhar, vice-president, CII-Madurai Zone, says that FSSA is the need of the hour. Pointing out that the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act could be used even against doctors, she says: “Any legislation is a double-edged sword. When we provide a service to the general public, we have to own the responsibility.”

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