With the value of the unorganised food services industry in India estimated to reach Rs 3 trillion by 2025, and the projected annual growth of the market at 8.4% (CAGR 2025-2028), food safety and hygiene gain paramount importance in the digital age. While it is expected that every stage from manufacture, storage, packaging and distribution of food adheres to the highest standards of safety and hygiene, figures of growing consumer grievances indicate otherwise. Addressing root causes like kitchen hygiene, chemical contamination, last-mile delivery hygiene, and other practices, would prove beneficial and cost effective to both the food service industry and the consumer. Read on…
According to recent statistics accessed by Tarun Bhatia, Country Manager, EMR Resources UK, 65% of the food sector is unorganised; reading between the lines, most establishments do not follow safety guidelines. Out of 2.49 million food service businesses in India, only 46,700 have an FSSAI licence; even among restaurants, only 30-40% have procured an FSSAI licence.
In the last fiscal year, FSSAI conducted almost 200 inspections per day, but improvement notices were sent to only 362 establishments in the entire year (notably, ₹24 crore was collected in fines). Over 700 consumer grievances were filed, but as per the FSSAI’s own data, only 15% of them were resolved.
Highlighting the pressing need for transformation, Tarun sheds light on the staggering figures that reveal the critical state of food safety in India’s vast food sector.”
Role of FSSAI
Depending upon the stakeholder, FSSAI is either viewed as a body that does too much (read: interferes, over-regulates, penalises) or does nothing at all (too few inspections, interventions, impact). The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The fact of the matter is that contrary to widely held belief, the FSSAI is a relatively young organisation (it turned 15 this year). The ratio of food safety inspectors relative to food establishments is unimaginably skewed; for its thousands of quick service restaurants, caterers, five-star hotels, cloud kitchens, home chefs and food retailers, the city of Mumbai has just 13 food safety officials.
This is why the FSSAI advocates a collaborative, risk-based approach towards food safety, wherein every stakeholder assumes responsibility.
Cost vs benefit
Apart from being the India representative of FSSC, Smita Murthy owns and runs a pet-friendly cafe that offers coffee and burgers. In her own words: “The cost of cleaning solutions can be a burden, especially for smaller establishments. Professional cleaning products may be expensive, but we need specific products for specific kitchen areas; we cannot cut corners here. Other than a weekly holiday, we close for one additional day every three months for deep cleaning. In this era of consumer awareness and social media, not adhering to best practices is not an option.”
“A metagenomic analysis can reveal the journey of food when one looks for pathogens and hygiene indicators,” said Subhaprada Nishtala, Director-in-Charge, International Training Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “The US database lists the microbes to be expected.” For example, if food is kept in the fridge throughout, a certain ‘normal’ set of microbes will be detected, but if food is removed from the fridge for some time and then put back, a separate set will be found. An Indian database of ‘expected’ microbes will need to be created.
In the pursuit of pristine hygiene, Subhaprada underscores the power of metagenomic analysis, pushing the boundaries of food safety monitoring in India.”
If there was a gross hygiene violation early in the production process, the microbe may have died but its degradation products and toxins may remain in the food, which can be measured using mass spectrometers; in India, these devices are used to measure pesticides levels, and have not yet been applied to food safety.
Not everyone can afford or access such sophisticated tools. Instead, the FSSAI has introduced a hygiene rating system. After registering with the hygiene rating portal, an FBO can then be assessed by an accredited auditor and rated according to the results. The rating is valid for two years. During this time, the hygiene manager must maintain data according to the hygiene checklist (available on the FSSAI website) on a quarterly basis.
“The hygiene checklist is like a question paper that needs to be solved,” said Dr K U Methekar, Deputy Director, FSSAI. “The answers will be the basis for the next hygiene rating.”
According to Dr Methekar, the most frequent errors in maintaining kitchen hygiene are:
- Overlooking and overconfidence: An FBO should not remain under the illusion that they are consistently compliant and should conduct sudden checks themselves.
- Uncovered utensils
- Mixing used and unused utensils
- Infrequent sanitisation of knives.
With a stern reminder that complacency has no place in kitchen hygiene, Dr Methekar highlights common pitfalls and emphasizes the need for vigilant self-assessment within the food service industry.”
A cold storage facility may arrest microbial growth but has no effect on toxins already present in food because of an earlier hygiene failure. Refrigerants range from ammonia to propylene glycol, and their potential impact on food has not been adequately studied.
The type of cleaning solutions used, and their method of application determine the level of hygiene achieved. The FSSAI stipulates certain norms for cleaning agents (should not pose threat to food, should not have colour, etc.), and has also come up with guidelines on combinations that can be used. But some cleaning agents have long half-lives (and may leave residues) and may not have been studied, as an individual product from a brand.
Is there a case to be made for the FSSAI to test and approve cleaning products used in the food industry? India may not yet be ready for this, but the US EPA already has such a list, and one day, India will follow.
Striking the balance between cost and commitment, Smita advocates for uncompromised hygiene in the kitchen, emphasizing the crucial role of professional cleaning products in safeguarding consumer health.”
“Like India has a defence budget to protect it from enemies, food hygiene should have a significant allocation so that consumers are protected against contaminants,” said Dr Methekar.
The FSSAI works with MNCs to use their CSR funds in supplying aprons, gloves, and other equipment to street vendors, as well as giving them training in hygiene. Tying up with local bodies to supply potable water for cooking is another demanding task.
A particular vendor may be hygiene compliant, but are its vendors also compliant? Are its vendor’s vendors compliant?
FSSC 22000 offers a certification Scheme for the auditing and certification of Food Safety Management Systems to ensure the provision of safe food, feed, and packaging to the consumer goods industry. It is a third-party, voluntary standard applicable across the food industry’s supply chain. The FSSC has a public register; by entering the name of a vendor, one can check if they are FSSC certified. One can then ask the vendor for their vendor’s name and confirm if they are certified and so on.
What is next?
- Larger manufacturers may find it worthwhile to invest in AI-linked camera systems to monitor workers’ hand hygiene.
- Space in Tier I cities comes at a premium, and kitchens tend to be cramped spaces that are not conducive to hygiene. Better design, and solutions designed to work in such facilities are the need of the hour.
- Indoor air quality of kitchens is a common source of microbial and chemical contamination of food but has not been given sufficient attention.
- Hygiene in last-mile delivery systems of food needs to be addressed to ensure that the quality of food that reaches the consumer is the same as when it was produced.
- BHOG (Blissful Hygienic Offering to God): Voluntary certification for edible religious offerings.
- Advice on safe and sustainable packaging to avoid single-use plastics and ensure hygiene of packaging.
- Repurposed Used Cooking Oil: Instead of repeatedly reusing cooking oil, aggregators can collect used oil from FBOs and sell to soap factories or biodiesel facilities.