Is Kerala doing enough to make dining out a safe and healthy activity?

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Eating out is one of the most preferred leisure activities of families, especially those in urban areas. And for people who travel far to work, eating out, though by no means preferred, will be the only option.

This ubiquitous activity, for some a pleasure and for others a necessity, could pose alarming public health risks if left unmonitored. The demand for food is huge and the supply seems to have more than kept pace. But surveillance has a lot more catching up to do.

Kerala has been found wanting especially on three counts. One, licensing and registration. Two, inspection and sample collection. Three, food analysis and monitoring.

Under the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, licence is mandatory for any Food Business Operator (FBO) like hotels, restaurants and catering businesses with an annual turnover of more than Rs 12 lakh. On the other hand, petty FBOs with an annual turnover of less than Rs 12 lakh, like small retailers, street vendors, or temporary stall holders, will have to register with authorities like the local self-governments or the GST Department.

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How hotels escape food safety checks
A top source in the Food and Safety Department said that there was an inordinate delay, ranging from 60 to even 120 days, in issuing licenses. Under the FSS Act, licenses are supposed to be issued within 60 days of receiving an application. If this is not done without either rejecting the application or informing the applicant of certain insufficiencies, the FBO can start functioning.

“Problem is, when an FBO begins operations without getting a license, it will not be included in the database of the Food and Safety Department, thus remaining insulated from the scrutiny of the Department,” the source said.

Since these FBOs will have to be simultaneously registered with other government departments, the Food Safety Department can easily cross-check its database with sister departments. The Department, however, has not bothered to do this either.

Official figures show that a substantial number of restaurants with GST registration do not feature in the Food and Safety Department database; State GST figures for Thiruvananthapuram, for instance, show that 96 of the 162 restaurants with a GST registration do not have Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) licence.

Under the FSS Act, the Food Safety Officer (FSO), who comes under the assistant commissioner of food safety of a district and is in charge of field-level functions, has to maintain a database of all food businesses within the area assigned to him. None of them, the top source in the Department said, had a comprehensive database. “Even prominent crowded eateries these FSOs pass by daily are not included in their database,” the senior official said.

Without a comprehensive database, the Food Safety Commissioner will have no idea of the total number of FBOs. Result: the Department is not in a position to monitor their activities, leave alone follow up on whether these restaurants and shops are adhering to the standards specified for manufacturing, selling and storing of food articles.


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Poor inspections and follow up
There is a considerably high number of operators outside the scanner of the Food Safety Department but here is a more disturbing fact: Only a small percentage of even licensed operators are subjected to inspection. A recent CAG report observed that less than 30 percent of FBOs with a turnover of over Rs 12 crore were subjected to food safety inspection.

In the case of petty FBOs like 'thattukadas', the CAG report said that not even nine percent were being inspected. The Food Safety Department officials Onmanorama talked to said that the shortage of enforcement officers and basic infrastructure including vehicles were hampering enforcement.

The FSS Act stipulates that license holders should be inspected at least once a year by food safety officers.

It is problematic that only a small number of licensed eateries are subjected to even one inspection a year but far worse is the follow-up. It is as if the Department's job is done after issuing an improvement notice to an FBO.

A senior Department official said that the restaurants invariably default on furnishing the mandatory compliance report. “Without this information, how is the Department to know whether the lapses pointed out by the food safety officers have been rectified. The FSOs don't insist either,” the official said.


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Caught red-handed, but forgotten
The enforcement is weak even when unsafe or substandard food is detected. Under the FSS Rules, FSOs will have to draw food samples for surveillance, survey and research. The first samples, however, cannot be used for prosecution.

If any of these preliminary samples are found not to adhere to FSSAI standards, more samples, called the 'enforcement samples', will have to be immediately collected from the operator so that the shop could be shut down and prosecution proceedings initiated.

In most cases, these are not done, and in some others, the lifting of the 'enforcement sample' is done very late. A recent CAG audit has found that though 708 cases of unsafe samples were found, 'enforcement samples' were collected only in 56 cases.

The net result of this failure to collect more samples urgently when a restaurant or wayside hawker is found to sell unsafe food is that the unsuspecting public will continue to consume such contaminated food.

For instance, based on a complaint, an initial surveillance sample of milk was taken from the Sankranthi Milk Cooperative Society in Kottayam in July 2019. The Government Analyst’s Laboratory, Thiruvananthapuram, found the sample substandard. However, the enforcement sample was taken nearly two years later in February 2021. The results have still not come and the public continues to consume milk from this cooperative.


Anganwadi tragedy
The administrative indifference towards follow-up action is so intense that enforcement samples were not taken even when 'anganwadi' food was found unsafe.

The CAG, for instance, reported that food safety officers had found Amrutham Nutrimix, a supplementary nutritional powder given to children six months to three years of age, served in Thiruvananthapuram in September 2020 was unsafe.

However, when enforcement samples were picked, it was not only done late in December that year but also from a different batch. Meanwhile, the unsafe Nutrimix powder, from the problematic lot continued to be served to infants.

The near absence of post-detection or secondary surveillance was cited as a major reason when last June more than 60 children in three anganwadis in Kerala - Kalluvathukkal in Kollam, Kayamkulam in Alappuzha and Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram - had complained of food poisoning symptoms like nausea and diarrhea.

It was found that the rice served in the Kalluvathukkal anganwadi was worm-infested. The reports from the other two anganwadis are still awaited.


The futility of lab testing
On top of all this, even if contaminated food reaches notified laboratories, the assessment of food safety is virtually a futile exercise.

There are three notified laboratories in Kerala: Government Analyst’s Laboratory (GAL), Thiruvananthapuram, Regional Analytical Laboratory (RAL), Ernakulam and Regional Analytical Laboratory (RAL), Kozhikode.

A CAG audit conducted in 2020 found that all the prescribed parameters for analysing the standards and permissible limits of contaminants, toxins, residues, antibiotics and microbiological aspects were not being carried out in any of these laboratories.

Take for instance milk. A suspected sample of milk has to be subjected to a range of 33 to 99 parameters. But all these three labs have accreditation for not more than three of these parameters.

Now take fish. There are up to 23 parameters to be checked to assess the quality of fish. None of the three notified labs in Kerala have the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) accreditation for any of these parameters.

Ditto for packaged drinking water. As per law, 52 parameters have to be checked before a quality judgment is passed. The GAL, Thiruvananthapuram, has accreditation for 20. But the other two labs in Ernakulam and Kozhikode have accreditation for only six and five parameters respectively.

Moral of the story: Even if a lab testifies a food product as safe, it cannot be considered conclusive.

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