Millennium Post

Dangerous roadside delights

These are eyesores dotting urban spaces and cannot be banished. Street foods are a way and part of our lives; they provide a medium for integrating rural and urban areas economically, socially and culturally. Unfettered expansion of towns and cities, teeming migration of labour force from hinterland and rural areas and paucity of time have all led to escalation of make-shift eateries that encroach pavements and berms along roads. Unlicenced hawkers sell ready-to-eat food that finds instant takers, mainly with the working class and themillenials, whogobble them, unmindful of their health and environment.

Consumers are not perturbedabout how and where these vendors perch their tables, stalls, stands or push-carts or kiosks- be it adjoining open toilets, drains choked with stagnating water and floating filth or flies milling around. The scenario looks alike, be it any metropolis or township. Change in their schedules, tastes, eating habits and attitudes towards food consumption have forced people, mostly low-income, to seek these food joints, which are accessible, affordable and palatable. Food safety and hygiene are hardly their concern. Street foods are a major public health risk due to lack of basic infrastructure and services, difficulty in controlling the large numbers of vending operations because of their diversity, mobility and temporary nature.

It is not the poor alone who gorge on these food. Street food is a low-cost meal for a bulk of students; they love it for it ‘unmatched taste’, found a study last year by the Institute of Home Economics, Delhi University, that covered students aged 18-23. The study, which covered 500 consumers and 250 street food vendors across the city, showed more than half of them fell ill and 43 per cent took medication. A majority (63 per cent) were aware of adulterated ingredients and food-borne diseases.

Several epidemiological studies suggest that street foods contribute to a significant number of food poisoning. Vendors lack adequate knowledge and understanding of basic food safety issues and norms. Consequently, improper handling of food results in microbial contamination. Major sources contributing to this are the place of preparation, utensils for cooking and serving, raw materials, water, time and temperature abuse of cooked foods and vendors’ personal hygiene. A study by FAO and All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health found that street foods in Kolkata were prone to microbiological contamination.

The standard plate count (SPC- which is used as an indicator of the level of bacteria in dairy products) of samples of lassi, idli and dahivada, made by fermentation, was very high compared to samples of other products tested.  Escherichia coli, an indicator of faecal contamination, were detected in 55 per cent of the samples tested. ‘The presence of E. coli raises a suspicion of improper food handling practices.’ The hazards in some other samples were because of poor personal hygiene, prolonged holding, repeated handling and the use of substandard water and implements at different stages.

Laws to regulate street food exist but are thrown into the bin. Cops and municipal food inspectors look askance once they get their mamool or hafta and enjoy free lunch.The Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act 2006, enforced on 5 August 2011 across the country, is yet to be implemented properly. The rules stipulate that every food business with an annual turnover below Rs 12 lakh is to be registered with the state health department. Those earning more will need a license to operate. The deadline for registering and issuing a licence to street vendors was revised to February 2014 by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Those failing to get a licence were to either close down their business or shell out heavy penalties ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 10 lakh if they continue without licence or registration. With the deadline long passed and no penal action imposed, vendors continue to flourish.

On the law enforcement side, the scenario is grim. The existing facilities at the authorised laboratories are unacceptably inadequate and do not conform to international food safety benchmarks, norms and practices.

Just four laboratories exist for food testing- two under the Central Health Ministry, one under the CSIR, and another under the Maharashtra government. Scientific protocols to maintain high standards of accuracy, reliability and credibility in operation of laboratory are in disarray. Besides, the quality audit system and surveillanceto achieve and maintain the required level of quality and its reliability leave much to be desired.

The FSSAI policies have not been properly implemented. The laboratories function in a complex and chaotic manner in the absence of standard operating procedures; with little regard to inter-lab collaboration. Besides, there is no specialised legal expertise to enable appropriate projection of scientific issues in a realistic and convincing manner when such issues are brought up in courts.
The government has not issued, till date, the Food Authority Gazette notification, defining the terms of reference and scope, in respect of private laboratories involved in food testing.

The author is an independent journalist

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