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Hygiene hazards in Hyderabad’s dining dens

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Hygiene hazards in Hyderabad’s dining dens

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It is called charcoal shawarma. By 4 p.m., the food kiosk on Road No. 8 in Hyderabad’s Habsiguda, a middle-class residential area surrounded by government offices, is up and ready. Unlike the traditional vertical rotisserie where the heat hits the meat from the sides, here it is grilled over charcoal. The minced meat, topped with diced vegetables, is spread over a flatbread and drizzled with a creamy dressing, along with other sauces. By 6 p.m., a queue of people eagerly waits to pick up the juicy rolled-roti snack.

“Can you make one with fresh meat instead of minced meat,” a customer asks. “No, it will take time. First, I have to get done with this,” says the youth manning the kiosk, his hands moving like clockwork.

Is there a difference between the freshly grilled meat and the minced meat? That is the pressing question for diners as food safety becomes a growing concern in the 40-degree-Celsius heat of Hyderabad.

“The basic ingredients for mayonnaise are egg and oil. The chances of salmonella developing in the mixture are very high if the ingredients are not fresh or not stored properly,” says a Telangana State Food Laboratory official. “The samples have to be sent in cold chain for us to accurately conclude if it is safe. Otherwise, we will yield a false positive result,” he explains.

For roadside eateries and restaurants with high footfall, the dangers are closely tied to hygiene. High day temperatures, prolonged food storage time, high throughput of food items, long working hours for staff, limited water supply, low hygiene standards, and minimal kitchen oversight have made eating out a risky proposition in the city. Adding the complexity of food delivery apps makes the experience even more daunting.

Some of the restaurants, however, are going out of their way to allay fears of restaurant-goers. The Taaza Kitchen in Tarnaka, a residential- cum-commercial locality in western Hyderabad, is one of the most popular and frequented restaurants among locals. The main attraction is the south Indian fare available in the mornings and evenings. “It typically sees 2,500 to 3,000 visitors daily, with the numbers increasing during the weekends,” says Raju, the restaurant manager.

From the outside, the establishment’s commitment to hygiene is evident, with all staff members, from the counter clerks to the servers, wearing masks and gloves. Inside, the restaurant maintains drain holes in every room to prevent water stagnation. “At the end of each day, we discard leftover batter and food, preparing a fresh batch every morning. We also bring in supply stock in limited quantities to eliminate the risk of using expired products. We restock only when supplies run low,” explains Raju.

Afternoons at the Grill House restaurant in Lothkunta, in the eastern part of Hyderabad, are typically quiet. One reason is its 1 p.m. opening time, and the other is the intense heat. The seating area is a separate section adjacent to the counter where orders are placed. In January this year, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation authorities had closed down the restaurant after 17 people fell ill after eating shawarma there. Santosh, who has worked here for three years, sits at the counter. “The restaurant was shut for about a month-and-a-half and reopened only two months ago,” he says. “Shawarma sales were initially slow due to the news and people’s concerns, but they are gradually picking up. Being located on the main road is an advantage for our restaurant; even if fewer regular customers come, we have many passersby stopping by for food,” Santosh explains.

Violations and crackdown

This incident of diners taking ill triggered a series of city-wide raids by food safety officials. Another catalyst was the discovery of worms in a Cadbury’s chocolate packet at a supermarket in Ameerpet. Now, the GHMC Commissioner has teamed up with the Commissioner of the Food Safety Department to conduct inspections on restaurants and eateries across the city to detect hygiene violations. Task force teams, each consisting of three to four food safety officers, have been established for this purpose. These teams, accompanied by the commissioners, are selecting localities based on restaurant density to carry out surprise inspections, says Balaji Raju, Assistant Food Controller at GHMC.

Upon conducting an inspection, the Food Safety Officer (FSO) drafts an inspection report. If deemed necessary, the FSO collects samples of suspicious items and sends them to the State Food Laboratory for testing. In case of minor violations, the Designated Officer (DO) issues an improvement notice, providing a compliance window of at least 14 days. For major offences, a show-cause notice is issued. If the Food Business Operator (FBO) fails to provide a satisfactory response, the DO can authorise adjudication. Penalties are determined by the nature of violation, ranging from fines of up to ₹3 lakh for substandard or misbranded food to up to ₹10 lakh for possessing injurious adulterants.

For severe offences warranting imprisonment, the DO sends recommendations to the Commissioner of Food Safety, who then decides whether the case should be referred to a regular court or a special court, based on the severity of the violation.

When teams find a restaurant failing to meet hygiene standards, they identify the kitchen supervisor and provide training in sanitation upkeep. “This is a collaborative venture with the National Restaurant Association of India, wherein the department conducts monthly awareness sessions for approximately 500 to 600 restaurants and eateries. Beyond restaurants, there is also a pressing concern regarding the hygiene practices of numerous street food vendors in the city. In response, the departments concerned are diligently identifying and conducting awareness sessions for 600 to 700 vendors each month on maintaining proper hygiene practices,” says Balaji.

He notes that several restaurant chains with multiple branches have delegated hygiene oversight to supervisors who are often not adequately qualified for the task. He cites instances where popular establishments such as Rayalaseema Ruchulu and Shah Ghouse have come under scrutiny for hygiene breaches. “Those restaurants were previously issued notices regarding hygiene standards, which were temporarily maintained. However, the standards have since been knowingly or unknowingly compromised again,” he points out.

R.V. Karnan, Commissioner of the Food Safety Department, says participating in a Hygiene Rating Certification Program can be beneficial for the restaurants. This voluntary initiative evaluates food businesses based on their observed food hygiene and safety conditions during inspections. By obtaining a hygiene rating certificate, restaurants can showcase their commitment to upholding high standards of cleanliness and safety.

Hazardous chemicals

Globally, there is growing concern about the safety of Indian food ingredients with the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed flagging contamination in over 500 samples. On May 21, the system flagged a herbal tea with the organophosphate insecticides ‘Chlorpyrifos’ and ‘Chlorpyrifos-methyl’ in Rooibos pineapple tea from India. On May 17, the same harmful chemical associated with learning disabilities was detected in raisins from the country. Despite being banned in over 40 countries, these substances remain accessible through online shipping platforms in India.

The range of chemicals found by EU laboratories read like a toxic concoction. The list includes ethylene oxide, mercury, Aflatoxin B1, multiple pesticide residues, Tricyclazole, Fenpropathrin, Hydrocyanic acid, Nitrofurans, Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, and cadmium among other hazardous substances.

Amid local concerns over low hygiene and global worries about food contamination, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) stands as the national watchdog. Tasked with ensuring food safety in a country of 1.4 billion population, the organisation operates on a budget of ₹675 crore. In 2021-22, it had scrutinised 1,44,345 samples, and found 32,934 of those as non-conforming — roughly 22% failing the safety test.

Knee-jerk reaction or hand-holding?

However, the crux lies beyond these figures. In a country with over a billion people and countless eateries, from street vendors to upscale restaurants, the FSSAI tested under 1.5 lakh samples. This sampling leaves consumers worried about the food they order online or enjoy at upscale cafes. Hyderabad has less than 50 food safety officials. Now, that raises a big question — can the limited force effectively monitor the myriad restaurants serving millions in the city?

“It’s a good effort; however, it needs to be a comprehensive effort. Merely penalising and marketing that the authorities have taken action is not the best approach. It should involve training food handlers, clarifying what needs to be done and what should be avoided, as many food operators lack this knowledge. The authorities should aim to improve the entire industry,” says Dharmendra Lamba, president of the Telangana Chefs Association.

“If a person has to pass an exam, they should know the syllabus. Similarly, after an inspection, if authorities conduct a re-inspection after three months and the situation remains unchanged, the accountability lies with the operator,” he adds.

Food Business Operators should focus on providing sanitation and serving hygienic food because it benefits their business in the long run, he explains. “If a customer falls sick after eating at a place, they are unlikely to return, leading to a loss of trust. While maintaining hygiene is not cheap, the cost of neglecting it is much higher,” highlights Lamba.

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