Failure to ensure safe food: Activists call for special act to protect TN consumers

Activists calling for consumer protection question how a few hundred officers can inspect lakhs of eateries. At present, six lakh eateries are registered with the Food Safety and Drugs Administration in the state.
Representative image of food
Representative image of food
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Lapses in food safety protocols at private eateries in Tamil Nadu have been constantly making headlines this year. Consumers have reported finding plastic in sambar and tooth dentures in a cake. The issue came under the lens again in September after a minor in Namakkal district died from eating shawarma at a local eatery. Days after the minor’s death, 26 workers were hospitalised after eating contaminated food at a hotel in Krishnagiri. The Tamil Nadu Food Safety and Drugs Administration (FSDA) department sprung into action only after the complaints, closing down shops and levying fines.

Deepan Chakkravarthi, an independent political activist, told TNM, “The food safety authority has sealed shops, levied fines and initiated action after complaints. But by doing this, consumers are turned into’ lab rats.’ It is not preventive in nature.” Referring to the six lakh registered shops under the FSDA, Deepan asked, “How can a few hundred officers cover or inspect lakhs of eateries in the state?”

As a potential solution, he proposed a special act for the state to protect consumers. “Consumers should be allowed inside the kitchens where food is prepared. Usually, these kitchens have a ‘no admission’ board. If consumers are allowed to check these places out, they can prevent eating from unhygienic kitchens and also raise a complaint to the authorities without compromising on their health. A notification to this effect was passed by the Gujarat government in 2019, and it has been successfully implemented there,” he added. 

But allowing consumers into the kitchen carries its own risks. Venkata Subbu, the president of the Tamil Nadu Hotel Association argues that the reason consumers are not allowed inside the kitchen areas where food is prepared is to ensure that the food isn’t exposed to contamination. “As per the FSDA department’s mandate, we should regulate labourers who enter the kitchen, ensure that they wear hair caps, wash their hands before entering, etc. We can't let consumers in because they wouldn’t be equipped with, say, a hair cap to enter,” Venkata Subbu told TNM. 

In addition to letting consumers inside kitchens, Deepan said the act should specify a way to monitor the preservation of meat by shops across the state. A petition for the special act has been sent to the concerned authorities, he said. 

When TNM asked Health Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi about the possibility of bringing such an act or at least a notification into effect, he said, “The department will look into this petition. That aside, we welcome all suggestions to enhance food safety since it poses a direct danger to the health of people.” He said the department was planning to conduct weekly checks at all districts under different themes, such as adulteration and hygiene, to reduce risk to public health. 

Consumers’ rights activist and practising advocate S Martin added, “The special act can be one of the solutions, but what is most important is for the respective departments to strengthen their enforcement measures to ensure safety. If FSDA officials are less in number then the government should improve the number of staff and conduct more inspections.” 

Referring to the trend of the FSDA not revealing the names of registered shops which have, in the past, been pulled up for safety lapses, Martin asked, “Why are they protecting the names of these eateries? No law states that the names of the shops should be protected. If the respective department releases the names of the shops where such lapses are being recorded, consumers can avoid these shops. But the respective departments are not working for the benefit of the consumers in the first place.”

The state has slipped two ranks in the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSSAI) State Food Safety index (2022-2023). While Tamil Nadu ranked number one in 2021, it finds itself in third place this year. “It is because of changes in some parameters. The FSDA is regularly taking preventive and punitive measures against those who do not comply with the food safety protocols,” a senior official from the FSDA told TNM. 

It is to be noted that cloud kitchens do not come under the purview of the TN FSDA as they hold a central FSSAI licence.

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