In India eating out is no longer considered a once in a while indulgence during a festive occasion. Irrespective of economic class more and more people go out to eat because it is convenient. For the working lot, it is a good alternative to cooking at home especially when time pressed. To cater to the growing needs of consumers wishing to eat out, a number of eateries, casual dining, fast food joints, quick service restaurants, takeaways and even caterers have taken to food business in a big way. However, can the consumer be really sure that all these mushrooming eating joints provide safe and wholesome food? Are these eating places registered with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and do they have licenses? Are they maintaining food safety and food hygiene in the preparation, handling, storage, and transportation of foods?
With the rise in the eating out culture, there is a growing concern about food safety too. The responsibility of food safety lies with the Food Authority, the Food Business Operators (FBOs) and also the consumers themselves? The FSSAI makes the laws and needs to ensure they are being followed, the FBOs need to be in compliance with the law and consumers need to go to those eating places that are licensed. The very first step FBOs need to take to provide safe food is that they acquire a valid license. The Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011 has been operational since 5 August 2011. According to these regulations, all FBOs in the country must be registered or licensed with the FSSAI. All FBOs operating under a license, permission or registration under an old Act or Order had to get their licenses converted to the new FSSAI approved license but many have not done so despite several extensions of dates for converting licenses. Therefore on the ground, it seems that there are numerous eating places that are operating without a license or still have old licenses, so their food safety and food hygienic compliance are suspect.
A food license ensures food safety to a large extent as FBOs have to comply with the conditions of the license. One of the main conditions for grant of license is that they need to follow food safety, food hygiene and sanitation requirements mentioned in Schedule 4 of the FSSAI regulations. The Licensing Authority also undertakes periodic food safety audits and inspections of the licensed establishments through its own or agencies authorized for this purpose by the FSSAI, therefore licensed FBOs to ensure they are in compliance of all food safety parameters. Non-compliance with this provision by an FBO can attract penalty under section 55 of the Food Act or even cancellation of license.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines food hygiene as the “conditions and measures necessary to ensure the safety of food from production to consumption”. Lack of adequate food hygiene measures can lead to contamination of foods which in turn can cause foodborne diseases, like food poisoning. It is the responsibility of all FBOs to ensure that they have taken all food hygiene and sanitation measures so that the food served in their restaurants is safe for the consumer to eat and does not cause serious diseases. Maintaining food safety and food hygiene enables FBOs to comply with the food laws in the country and also protect the reputation of their businesses besides ensuring consumers are safe.
Food can become contaminated at any point during preparation, processing, storage, distribution, or transportation. Everyone in the food production chain needs to maintain food hygienic as that prevents harmful bacteria from contaminating food. One of the biggest factors leading to foodborne illnesses is cross-contamination from the hands of the food service employees. Bacteria can also spread from raw meats and unwashed vegetables to ready to eat or cooked foods so they must be kept separately. Other places from where bacteria can spread to foods is from packaging material, food processing equipment like mixers and grinders, unclean cookware and kitchen cloths and dirty work surfaces. All raw materials and ingredients used in preparing foods must be safe and appropriately stored to prevent contamination. Data on studies carried out after food poisoning outbreaks point to five main risk factors and these are
- Not holding food in the proper temperatures
- Contamination from equipment
- Inadequate cooking time
- Food ingredients from unsafe sources
- Poor personal hygiene of food handling staff, especially poor hand washing habits or working when sick
Temperatures play a key role in preventing contamination and so they must be maintained before preparation, during display after preparation, when food is served hot, when food is served cold, after cooking and when reheating food. It is important to cook the food thoroughly up to the recommended temperatures and duration of time. All utensils must be cleaned thoroughly with detergent and hot water to prevent contamination. FBOs must purchase raw foods and ingredients only from licensed vendors so foods can be prepared safely for consumers. It is equally important to ensure that food service employees are aware and adequately trained to follow safe food practices and FBOs must impress on them the need to follow good personal hygiene practices.
Other food safety precautions that FBOs must keep in mind are that water used in the preparation of foods or water that comes in contact with food for cleaning, heating or steaming must be potable drinking water. Ice must be made of potable water especially if it comes in contact with food or drink and must be produced, handled and stored hygienically. Utensils and work surfaces that come in contact with raw meat, unwashed vegetables and soil from vegetables need a thorough cleaning and sterilizing. Chopping boards and utensils for preparing raw meats and all other foods must be separate. One other way that food can get contaminated is from the drip when defrosting foods so adequate precautions must be taken so the drip does not enter other foods.
Sometimes FBOs tend to overlook the design of their premises and that it meets regulatory requirements. There must be enough working space and appropriate storage conditions to store raw materials and ingredients. Walls, floors, ceilings, doors, windows and work surfaces must be of a material that does not attract dirt and mould and is easy to clean. There must be adequate washing facilities including hand washing facilities and toilets for staff, adequate ventilation, lighting, proper drainage and waste disposal and a separate storage area for cleaning agents and disinfectants. Adequate measures must be taken to prevent pests and insects from contaminating food both in storage and during preparation. Food waste must be stored in containers that cannot be tampered with by pests or stray dogs and cats. Vehicles and containers used to transport food must meet hygiene standards and must have a temperature control so the food is protected from getting contaminated.
One of the biggest food safety precautions the FBOs are responsible is to make sure their food service staff is fully conversant with all personal hygiene best practices. FBOs must provide soap for hand washing as well as hygienic clothing, gloves, hair covering. Food handlers must be sufficiently knowledgeable about the factors that can cause contamination and cross-contamination of foods like cutting boards, clothing, utensils, raw meat and vegetables. They must not smoke, spit, sneeze, touch face or hair, or eat food while handling food for consumers. They must wash hands after touching raw meat, going to the toilet, blowing their nose, after touching phones and mobiles or handling money. They must not wear jewelry when handling foods. If ill and suffering from infectious diseases or skin infections they must not be permitted to work.