Over the next three years, FSSAI plans to train 2.5 million Food Business Operators (FBOs) to ensure that food quality standards are met across the country. Why this sudden, massive push? Why measure food safety? What is the unexplored segment for FM in the food sector? Mrigank Warrier, Associate Editor, Clean India Journal reports.
Hygiene in the hills
Not too long ago, I found myself at a very appealing eatery in the Himalayan foothills. Located over 10 kilometres away from the hill station of Mussoorie, it was well off the main road, and not on the way to any tourist attraction. Where one would have expected an unclean dhaba, I found a spic and span cafe where not only was the commitment to cleaning visible, but cleaning itself was done frequently and in front of customers.
In India, almost no one expects a small eating joint to commit to hygiene. And yet, inexplicably, here it was. Inexplicable, until I saw a framed certificate on the counter – the owner of the cafe had undertaken an FSSAI certificate course in food safety and hygiene.
The cafe was not in a major city or town, nor did the owner have to travel to one to get trained. The certificate mentioned that the course had been conducted in a nearby village. Hygiene had come home.
Over three days, I saw many tourists go out of their way to patronise this place, ignoring more conveniently located options for breakfast, lunch and dinner – sometimes all three meals. Through online reviews and word-of-mouth, news had spread – here is a reliable, clean, safe place to eat.
Anecdotal evidence may indicate consumer preferences, but are not reflective of the food industry’s response to them. FSSAI’s State Food Safety Index (SFSI) measures how states in India perform in terms of food safety. Last year, the highest score was 82; this year, it fell to 63 – a drop of 19 points. The average score for large states decreased from 51.2 to 39.8 points. In previous years, the average score for large states stood higher at 50.85 in 2020-21 during the pandemic, and 56.3 in 2019-20. Among the 20 states in the large state category, nine states consistently witnessed a decline in food safety standards over the past three years.
Food safety standards
Safety implies vigilance and measurement. Without benchmarks and standards, food safety will become a matter of interpretation – in short, meaningless.
In a video statement on World Food Safety Day, Dr Roderico H Ofrin, WHO representative to India said: “Safe food sustains life and promotes good health. Around the world, almost one in ten people falls ill after eating contaminated food. Food standards form the bedrock of food safety and build trust in consumers about the quality of food. These provide guidance on hygienic food handling for farmers and processors, and specify practices to be followed across the food chain to ensure food safety.”
Who sets the standards in India and advises businesses on how to follow them? According to Dorothy Pereira, Manager, Food Safety & Hygiene, Taj Fort Aguada (Goa), “FSSAI has been very proactive in setting food safety standards. They have even issued a guidance document for the catering sector.”
Setting standards is one thing, offering practical solutions is another. Said Asha Shridhar, Director, FoodChain ID: “Food safety standards save lives. All of us have a moral and ethical obligation to serve safe and nutritious food. All food safety standards have a mother standard called HACCP, formulated by WHO, which form the basis of all other standards.”
Food safety rulebook
HACCP is a food safety management system that uses the approach of identifying and evaluating hazards and controlling their fate at critical control points (CCPs) in the supply chain. The widespread introduction of HACCP has promoted a shift in emphasis from end-product inspection and testing to the preventative control of hazards during production, especially at the CCPs.
As per the condition of licence under FSS (Licensing & Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations 2011, every FBO applying for licensing must have a documented FSMS plan and comply with Schedule 4 of this regulation. Schedule 4 introduces the concept of FSMS based on implementation of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Hygiene Practices (GHP) by food businesses.
Leave no-one behind
While FMCG behemoths have aligned themselves to food safety practices, one cannot ignore the forest for the trees. The vast majority of food producers are small enterprises, with a production ceiling of 100 kg/100 litres per day; many operate out of a home, or a room or two. The same contaminants that threaten industrial food production also pose risks to smaller-scale businesses.
Over the years, even the smallest food business has joined the FSSAI bandwagon by registering with the organisation and obtaining the necessary licence. Registering and renewing licences is one thing; actually measuring the quality of food is another.
A recent FSSAI order directed all FBOs to get tests done on their products and upload the results on an online portal every six months. According to an FSSAI official, “One of the conditions that a licensed manufacturer must meet is to ensure testing of relevant chemical and/or microbiological contaminants in food products in accordance with these regulations as frequently as required”. These tests are to be conducted at the NABL-accredited FSSAI-notified laboratories.
After pushback from the industry – the tests were to be done at the manufacturer’s cost, which many small businesses cannot afford – the rule is expected to be dialled down. However, the fact remains that the FSSAI is expanding its net to reach even the smallest producer.
Food safety is size- and turnover-agnostic. Its principles remain universal.
Keeping production units and small hotels clean is still doable, but what of those who operate from the streets? Shridhar said: “Today, at least suppliers are aware of food safety rules, and the need to get a licence. When it comes to smaller street food vendors, there is a challenge”.
Street food and the Delhi belly have been known to go hand-in-hand, but why should they?
The government plans to develop 100 healthy and hygienic food streets across the country. To operationalise the food streets, the National Health Mission of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare will provide assistance of ₹1 crore per food street at different locations in the country. The grant will be routed in the ratio of 60:40 or 90:10, with the condition that branding of these food streets will be done as per FSSAI guidelines.
Financial assistance will be provided for activities such as the provision of safe drinking water, hand washing, toilet facilities, tiled flooring of common areas, appropriate liquid and solid waste disposal, provision of dustbins, lighting etc.
The cleaning consumables that such units will require may be radically different from what is currently available. Is the cleaning industry planning to meet the needs of this all-new market segment?
Scope for FM
Regular cleaning, deep cleaning, hand hygiene, PPE, waste management, plumbing and drainage, pest management, sanitisation and disinfection, water quality, product transportation and packaging support – the list of potential FM services that will be required is long. The organised FM sector already provides these to large enterprises; it’s time they geared up to service the smaller, more numerous players.