Food inspections at restaurants in Hyderabad
Food inspections at restaurants in Hyderabad TNM

Food safety inspections stir public fear and hurt Hyderabad's restaurant businesses

Restaurant owners say that while inspections are a regular procedure, the news is interpreted wrongly, as all the restaurants that are inspected and mentioned on the social media handles of the Food Safety Department get a poor reputation.

Hyderabad, known as the food lovers’ paradise, recently reported a rise in food safety violations, affecting the city's culinary reputation. Between April and June this year, the Food Safety Department of Hyderabad conducted inspections in 78 locations, exposing unhygienic conditions in some of the city's most popular and celebrated eateries. 

Prominent local restaurants such as Shah Ghouse, Pista House, and Shadab received notices for violations. The inspections have received mixed reactions from the public, some urging for more inspections, while others question the authorities over follow up action. 

Meanwhile, restaurant owners are raising concerns about the establishments’ names being publicised even before a food safety concern is proved in the laboratory.

Violations at prominent establishments 

What caused the most uproar was probably the inspection at the Bangalore-based Rameshwaram Cafe in Madhapur, where expired items were found in large quanties, raising concerns among citizens. On May 23, food safety inspectors found 100 kg of expired black gram, and improperly labelled 450 kg raw rice, 20 kg white lobia, and 300 kg jaggery. The restaurant management maintained that the expired items were intended for “dispatch”, not for food preparation. After issuing a show-cause notice, the food inspectors seized and discarded food items worth Rs 56,000 worth from Rameshwaram Cafe. 

The restaurant’s co-founder Raghavender Rao refuted reports of unlabeled products, asserting that the law does not prohibit the use of unlabelled products. However, the food safety department insists on labels for all items. 

Food inspectors told TNM that the restaurant had kept black gram that was two months past its expiration date and questioned why it was not discarded for a long time. “Instead of complying with food safety standards, owners of premium food establishments are drawing comparisons with smaller places that do not comply with the law,” a top official said regarding the inspection at Rameshwaram Cafe. 

When officials inspected another well-known establishment – the Big Basket warehouse in Masjid Banda, Kondapur – expired items and hygiene issues were reported leading to suspension of its licence until further notice. Expired items such as chicken masala, chicken sausages, pizza cheese, paneer, ice cream, and almond fudge, were found with expiry dates ranging from October 2023 to April 2024. The team also found leaks from improperly stored milk, shakes, and oil contaminating other food items. Considering the severity of the violation, all perishable items were disposed of and the warehouse closed. 

The inspections have not only revealed storage and hygiene problems at warehouses and restaurants, but also resulted in the seizure of mislabeled water bottles from a number of establishments. Suspecting that the water bottles were substandard, officials seized Rs 68,400 worth of water bottles during an inspection at Airlive Pub in Sharat City Mall. Similarly, Babylon Bar and Kitchen in Jubilee Hills had water bottles valued at Rs 42,000 seized, Rs 63,000 worth water bottles at Barkas Indo Arabian Restaurant in Kompally and Rs 2,58,000 worth water bottles were seized from Sri Beverages in Cherlapally for alleged misbranding as they reportedly claim to be of higher quality.

Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) Assistant Food Controller Balaji Raju explained that white the water in the seized bottles were safe for drinking, those that were advertised as the best and most expensive were only packaged mineral water. 

What the Act says

According to the Food Safety and Standard Act 2006, violations are classified into three categories — misbranding, sub-standard food, and unsafe food. Misbranding refers to items not being labelled properly or having labels that are inaccurate or misleading. Substandard food is that which does not meet specified standards, but this does not necessarily mean it is unsafe for consumption. On the other hand, a food item is declared unsafe if consuming it can be injurious to health. 

While major violations are treated as criminal offences that are heard in court, minor violations are handled in summary trial courts (STC), where petty fines are imposed at the discretion of the Food Safety Department unger GHMC byelaws. 

Panic among public

The public's response, meanwhile, has been prompt, with many demanding more regular and extensive inspections. Requests to have specific hotels checked have flooded the Telangana Food Safety Commissioner's X account. Some have appreciated the department's work. Balaji Raju emphasised the public's growing awareness and noted that the department has been receiving 50-100 complaints per day statewide in recent times. "Food inspectors may not be able to inspect every establishment, but when a consumer notices compromised quality of food, we will definitely take action," he said.

According to Sampath from the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) Hyderabad Chapter, “Inspections are causing panic among both restaurants and customers. Restaurant owners have reported a 20% drop in business. Violations are rarely reported in upscale restaurants. However, new entrants to the industry are facing issues due to a lack of awareness and smaller businesses cannot make investments in the infrastructure. Employees also suffer when the business is hit.” 

In response to citizens' questions regarding the Food Safety Department's follow-up actions, department officials maintain that while regular checks are conducted, the onus of compliance lies with the establishments. “We are ensuring that violations are penalised. The follow-ups take time as it takes place as per set procedure,” Balaji Raju said. 

Licensing and registration of food establishments

There are about 1,15,000 food establishments in the state, with over 33,000 of them licensed, while others are only registered with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). As per the Food Safety Act, establishments with an annual turnover of over Rs 12 lakhs have to be licenced, while businesses below Rs 12 lakhs need only be registered.

In 2023, licences were issued to 1108 food establishments, while 1647 got registrations within GHMC limits. In the same year, about 1602 were inspected and 199 food samples were taken for laboratory tests. Among these, only 24 were considered as violations. Two were declared unsafe, while 11 were considered substandard, and 11 more misbranded.

As per the complaints, 103 complaints were registered, 48 cases disposed of in the STC, six cases where expired food products or stale food items were discarded, and 12 adjudications filed, including carryover from the previous year. 

This year, out of 78 inspections held between April 16 and June 1, the department filed 22 adjudications, while six more are yet to be filed. Only seven establishments – Zero 40 Brewing (Jubilee Hills), McDonald's (Uppal), Coffee Tree (Uppal), ITC Kakatiya (Begumpet), Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters (Jubilee Hills), Paradise Food Court (Mehdipatnam), and Distinct Origins Pvt Ltd (Manam Chocolate) – were found fully compliant. Five others including Air Live pub received improvement notices.

About half the places were found to be unhygienic according to the department reports. Many establishments were found to not take medical certificates confirming that food handlers – anyone who comes into contact with food – are free of contagious diseases. 

Inspections affecting business 

Restaurants are ready to cooperate with the authorities, says Sampath. “Inspections are a regular procedure, but the message going out is interpreted wrongly. Out of 10 restaurants, only one or two are found to be unsafe. However, all the restaurants that are inspected and mentioned on the social media handles of the Food Safety Department get a bad name. Owners are having sleepless nights as the reputation of the business is going down, eventually leading to shutting down,” he said.

He added that the NRAI has been conducting a one-day certification programme in collaboration with FSSAI for food handlers of small and upscale establishments to create awareness. 

“Frequent engagement with authorities is needed. It would be better if food establishments were not named on social media until it's proven to be unsafe,” Sampath said, referring to a 2022 Madras High court interim order

In 2022, a writ petition was filed by the Chennai Hotels Association at the Madras HC alleging that the Food Safety Department went to inspect hotels with media channels and declared them as unhygienic even before the samples collected from them could be sent for laboratory tests, thereby damaging the reputation of the hotels. The court emphasised that the images and visuals from the inspections must only be utilised for criminal prosecution and not for public relations.

Reacting to this, a food safety official in Hyderabad told TNM, "Our aim is not to create a sensation, it is to create awareness., "Our aim is not to create a sensation, it is to create awareness. At small food joints, the quality is compromised and understood, and the customer is going to eat there considering all the risks. For a premium price, ambiance and service became a must. Then why should the quality be compromised? People should be asking questions, and why wouldn’t they comply?” The official added that the authorities have asked food delivery apps to partner only with licensed food establishments. 

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