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Here is some food for thought over safety issue

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Mushrooming of street food stalls and hotels has raised questions on food safety aspects in Puducherry.
Mushrooming of street food stalls and hotels has raised questions on food safety aspects in Puducherry.
Rajesh B. Nair, Serena Josephine. M and Priti Narayan

Absence of proper mechanism to check roadside eateries is a matter of concern

PUDUCHERRY: Mushrooming of food joints, both roadside eateries and hotels, across Puducherry has raised concerns about food safety. The absence of a proper mechanism to check hygiene practices at the eateries, coupled with increasing frequency of eating out, has become a reason for worry as unsafe food could result in serious health hazards.

While the exact number of street food joints and hotels has not been recorded, officials said there might be more than 1,000 eateries across Puducherry but not all have been covered under the licensing procedure.

A trade union activist and an owner of night eatery P. Senthil said there are about 234 way-side night eateries and another 100 outlets which sell only breakfast and other food items.

Though these eat-outs are popular among the public, they could pose serious health risks for consumers. What makes food hazardous? H. Prathap Kumar Shetty, Reader, Department of Food Science and Technology of Pondicherry University explained, “Food turns unsafe due to improper storage after cooking and unsafe handling. Lack of hygiene in handling such as not washing hands properly at regular intervals could contaminate food.”

But the problem of food safety exists both at street food joints and hotels and restaurants, he added. Utmost care should be taken with any uncooked food including salads and raw meat/fish should never be mixed with cooked meat/fish, he advised.

Josephine Nirmala Many, Lecturer, Home Science, Bharathidasan Government College for Women said studies conducted at the department have revealed the presence of high microbial load in food in eateries, use of colouring agents in roadside eateries not within prescribed standards and sale of low quality food commodities such as oil, pepper, rice at petty shops. Mr. Senthil pointed out that use of ajinomoto in large quantities has been found to be a major cause of illness. “After this issue was raised, several night eateries have started to use ginger and garlic as an ingredient in the food items,” he said.

The problems caused by unsafe food are numerous as Medical Superintendent of Indira Gandhi Government General Hospital and Post Graduate Institute V. Govindaraj puts it, “Fast food kills faster. Additives added to the food are detrimental to the vascular system. Repeated use of oil ends in saturation causing endothelial damage. Lipid abnormalities, amoebiasis, gastric erosion and ulcer symptoms are produced.”

Infection caused by consuming contaminated food leads to acid peptic disorders. Ice made using contaminated water causes typhoid, infections and respiratory disorders. It is better to avoid taking ice outside, he said.

Frequent checks by authorities could help in ensuring hygienic practices in handling and storing food, food scientists believe. But food safety checks at these eateries are far from regular, they felt. Consider this: under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, the Health department has filed eight cases in 2005, six in 2006, two in 2007 and one in 2008.

Among cases filed earlier and decided at court, 18 cases have been convicted between 2005 and 2008, while seven have been acquitted. About Rs. 64,200 has been collected as fine, officials stated. Some bigger hotels, however, try to conform to safety norms. Amitava Roy, General Manager of Hotel Atithi said the hotel follows a set of standard operating procedures to ensure food safety. After procurement, the vegetables are first washed in chlorine water.

Vegetables, meat and dairy products are all stored in different refrigerators, and maintained at the appropriate temperature, so that no contamination occurs. In order to ensure maximum food safety and to increase shelf life of the food, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles are applied. “These are the standard guidelines for any star hotel, although the exact procedure varies from hotel to hotel. Five star hotels, which charge more on food, can also spend more on maintenance, unlike Atithi, which is a four star hotel,” he explains.

Similar food storage procedures are followed in hotels like Anandha Inn. Its General Manager Lawrence said the kitchen staff disinfects their hands every time they enter the kitchen from outside. They are checked for personal hygiene every morning.

Though the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 aims at regulating the manufacturing, storage, distribution and sale of food, and to ensure availability of safe food for consumption, penalising violators is not an easy task. In fact, the license issuing authority for eateries and hotels lies with the local body – an aspect considered a disadvantage by food safety inspectors.

Nevertheless, the Centre is in the process of coming out with a new act and this, according to food inspectors, will make the situation better. “The new act will make implementation of food safety measures uniform across the country. Stronger penalisation of violators, easy ways to approach the court for prosecution and bringing the license issuing procedures under one umbrella will be possible,” said Senior Food Inspector, Department of Health S. Balasubramanian.


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