Eating out, a walk on eggshells in Kerala

Lack of sustained enforcement, serious shortage of food safety officials, and poor compliance with food safety norms by eateries continue to aid the spike in cases of food-borne illness in the State. With repeat offenders on the rise, authorities need to step up surveillance to check the distribution, storage, and sale of unsafe food

Updated - January 13, 2023 07:47 pm IST

Published - January 12, 2023 06:40 pm IST - KOCHI

Representational image of eateries in Fort Kochi, Kerala

Representational image of eateries in Fort Kochi, Kerala | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

A notice served by the Kottayam municipality on Park Restaurant at Sankranthi in November, 2022 had listed eight lapses, including poor upkeep of the freezer used for storage of meat, and lack of licence for the space used as kitchen.

Though the management was asked not to resume operations without initiating rectification measures, the outlet continued to function in violation of the food safety norms until a 33-year-old nurse at the Government Medical College Hospital, Kottayam, and over 20 others developed uneasiness after having food from the eatery on December 29.

Reshmi Raj, the nurse, died following suspected food poisoning while the preliminary medical report attributed the death to infection to internal organs. The results of the forensic examination are awaited.

“This is sheer farcical. A life had to be lost for these people to spring to action. Nowhere else do people get away with murder by serving poisonous food. It is just a matter of time for the zeal to fizzle out and things will be back to square on in no time,” fumed Ananthakrishnan Nair, a 38-year-old IT employee, on social media. 

He was talking about the food safety authorities suddenly beefing up enforcement and conducting a flurry of raids after a life was lost to suspected food poisoning. Cases of people falling ill to food-borne diseases were also reported from other parts of the State in the New Year. In fact, the comment captured the general sentiment of the people about the gaps in food safety enforcement and surveillance apparatus in the State. 

As per the State Food Safety Index 2021-22 published by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), Kerala slipped from second in 2020-21 to seventh in 2021-22. The index reflects the overall performance of the States and Union Territories on various parameters of food safety. 

Tamil Nadu topped the list, with 82% weightage out of the total 100% while Kerala’s overall score was 57%. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh had better ratings. The State performed poorly under the main category of ‘compliance’ (14% weightage out of 30%), which measured the overall coverage of food businesses in licensing and registration; inspections carried for high-risk food businesses, and the number of samples drawn for testing. Tamil Nadu scored 21% weightage while Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh got 22% and 20% respectively in this category. 

The official figures reveals how toothless the Department of Food Safety is when it comes to effective enforcement against violators. It has just 160 food safety officials (140 in the field and 20 holding administrative roles) to monitor over six lakh units involved in food business. 

“Each food safety officer in urban areas has the responsibility to ensure compliance with the norms in about 10,000 units while an official in a rural area has to take care of institutions in at least 12 panchayats,” says V.R. Vinod, Commissioner of Food Safety. 

The Food Safety department and the health wing in local bodies have come under fire for not acting tough against food businesses found flouting the norms. Downing the shutters of an eatery or a food production unit for storage and sale of unsafe food remains the last step for the enforcement agencies going by the number of units closed down over the last four years.

In the period between July and December in 2019, only 45 food businesses were shut while the figure went up to 61 in 2021 and 149 in 2022 (both from July to December) while the total number of inspections was 21,225 in 2021 and 46,928 in 2022 respectively. 

‘The shortage of personnel in the Food Safety Department is an oft-repeated lament, especially on occasions when deaths occur due to food poisoning. We have come across several instances in which the eateries that were closed on account of violations re-opened without rectifying the lapses. The number of repeat offenders is on the rise. With cases registered against food safety violations languishing in various courts for want of adequate follow-up, the violators are roaming free,” says Dejo Kappan, consumer rights activist. 

As per official estimates, about 1,500 criminal cases are pending before various courts while the corresponding number of civil cases on food safety violations is about 1,200. Despite scoring above Tamil Nadu in terms of the infrastructure for food testing, the State has only three NABL-accredited labs that include the Government Analyst Laboratory in Thiruvananthapuram and the Regional Analytic Laboratories in Ernakulam and Kozhikode.

The district food lab in Pathanamthitta and the facility in Kannur are yet to go full steam for want of adequate facilities. A proposal by the Health department to set up food labs in all districts has been in the cold storage. 

The increasing incidents of food poisoning linked to eateries have exposed the fault lines in the restaurant industry. Admitting that there have been lapses from a section of the traders, G. Jayapal, general secretary of the Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association, cites the need for having a permanent enforcement system to prevent distribution, storage and sale of unsafe food instead of kneejerk reactions following every incident of suspected food poisoning. 

“We have been sensitising our members to store, prepare and serve food as per the required guidelines. There have been lapses, especially in the case of dishes such as al-fahm and shawarma. The association has requested the government to come up with a food policy based on the State’s traditional strengths. There has been a spurt in the use of junk and instant food in the State, especially in the post-pandemic scenario,” he says.

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