When food safety checks throw up unpalatable truths

Of the total statutory samples taken by the Food Safety Department in Ernakulam over the past six months, 24% was found to be either unsafe or substandard, or misbranded.

The findings revealed the growing need for better enforcement of rules by authorities and improved vigil among consumers to ensure safe, healthy and sustainable food in the district.

Rectification notices

Interestingly, about 41% of the food outlets inspected since April 1 were issued rectification notices after the Department officials found violations of the provisions prescribed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Of the 1,681 establishments inspected, 681 were issued notices. Sixty-three of the 260 samples taken for examination were found to be unsafe or substandard for consumption or misbranded.

The Department had slapped a penalty of ₹8.08 lakh on food business operators in the district while the fine imposed by the Revenue Divisional Officer (Adjudicating officer) was ₹4.2 lakh. It had initiated prosecution measures against 36 operators since April. The use of synthetic colours in various food items was found in the samples taken for examination during routine inspection.

Synthetic colour

“The addition of synthetic food colour in prepared food was noticed in the inspections conducted by the food safety officers across the 14 Assembly constituencies in Ernakulam. The department has asked the food business operators to avoid the use of synthetic colour and monosodium glutamate (MSG),” said Jacob Thomas, Assistant Commissioner of Food Safety, Ernakulam.

Even though the FSSAI has listed out the permitted colours, most food business operators fail to comply with it, fearing that consumers may not buy food items for lack of visual appearance. Many cooks appointed by the operators remain ignorant of the guidelines issued by the food safety authority and often use non-permitted colours or mix permitted and non-permitted colours, according to the officials.

“Take the case of sugar-based confections such as kesari or laddoo that come out in various colours. We have certain sensory traits that look out for particular colour and smell in various foods. The colour chosen has an impact on our perception of the food,” said V.N. Sivasankara Pillai, former director of the School of Environmental Studies at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat).

Urging consumers to take time out and read the names of ingredients mentioned on packed food items, Mr. Pillai said there would at least be five synthetic chemicals added in preserved foods. “While chemicals are used in such cases, materials like cassava starch and dyes are used to enhance the colour of turmeric powder sold in the market. Care should be taken while giving such adulterated products, especially to children,” he said.

Food poisoning

Stating that at least three to four children visited him a week with symptoms of food contamination, S. Sachidananda Kamath, former president of the Indian Academy of Peadiatricians, said it could have been caused either by the consumption of sweets or from food consumed from eateries.

“Food poisoning occurs owing to various factors like use of contaminated water, poor quality of oil, etc. The lack of proper hygiene in storage of meat and vegetables may also trigger the problem. The main symptoms include vomiting, stomach cramps and abdominal pain,” he said.

Urging parents to ensure that children ate food only from eateries that maintained proper hygiene and health standards, Dr. Kamath said care should be taken to use only clean and dry plates and cutlery. “The management of the eateries must also ensure that the staff always wash their hands. The overall hygiene of the employees must be given top priority,” he said.

On why the Corporation’s Health wing was not publishing the list of food business operators that violated food safety standards, Health Standing Committee chairperson Pratibha Ansari said the civic body was yet to take such an initiative. “But our health inspectors continue to make routine inspections to ensure the prescribed standards,” she said.

Creating awareness

Responding to food safety concerns, G. Jayapal, General Secretary of Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association, said the FSSAI had given its nod for the use of permitted colours in food items at prescribed limits. “However, we have requested our members not to use synthetic colours or additives. It’s a misconception that use of such materials will enhance the taste of dishes served to customers. The lack of skilled workers may often result in the use of colours. We have now launched a major programme to create awareness and educate stakeholders,” he said.

Mr. Jayapal said the association had launched a training programme for workers employed in hotels and restaurants across the State. “Each class will have 40 persons. Experts will train them on how to abide by the rules and regulations prescribed by the FSSAI. A certificate will be issued to each participant after successful completion of the programme, which will also test their knowledge levels on various aspects related to food safety,” he said.


Food safety officials pointed out that misbranding of food items remained another major concern. Inspections found that such products lacked details regarding ingredients, batch number, lot number, date of manufacturing and date of expiry.

Complaints about misbranding were found mainly in packets of toor dal, drinking water, cake, rusk, double-toned milk, cashew nut, blended vegetable oil, etc. As per the FSSAI, anyone who either by themselves or through any other person on their behalf manufactures for sale, store or sells or distributes or imports any food article for human consumption, which is misbranded, will be liable to a penalty of up to ₹3 lakh. The adjudicating officer is eligible to issue a direction to a person found guilty of an offence under this section for taking corrective action to rectify mistakes or such articles of food would be destroyed. If a person or a company is selling food articles of substandard quality, the food business operator may be charged an amount up to ₹5 lakh.

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