The deadline to register with the food safety authority was fast approaching. Numerous advertisements in the radio and the print media emphasised how this was the ‘last last day’ to apply. No more extensions would be granted. As the proprietor of Bhukkad, a small eatery at the NLSIU campus in Bangalore, I knew the time had come to register Bhukkad with the local municipality and be a part of the formal legal process. The Food Safety Officer in my area shot a passing glance at my documents, looked me straight in the eye and enquired matter-of-factly about ‘office expenses’. No inspection, no questions asked, he added.
In August 2006, India adopted a new food safety regime with the enactment of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (“the Act”). The Act, which has caused immense confusion among the various stakeholders in the food industry, consolidates several laws dealing with food safety. In a three-part article here, I will present an analysis of the new law from the perspective of small and medium food enterprises.
The term used in the Act to describe a food vendor is ‘Food Business Operator’ (“FBO”). The smaller food establishments, called ‘Petty Food Manufacturer’ or ‘Petty Food Business’ (“PFB”) need to go through a simple process of ‘registration’, which only requires an application fee of Rs. 100. Other establishments need to obtain a license from the state or central authority depending on the nature of the activity and their categorisation in the Schedules under the Act. In such cases, the process is much longer and it is more likely that there will be a physical inspection of the premises.
For me, the most significant part of the Act is that it brings petty food vendors and sellers under the purview of the food safety law through the expansive definition of the term ‘Food Business Operator’. It includes hawkers, small-scale manufacturers, itinerant manufacturers (vendors and temporary stall holders), and distributors of food at religious or social gatherings, or any small-scale business or a food industry with a turnover below Rs. 12,00,000. A majority of these vendors are part of the unorganised sector and cater to a large section of Indian society. The term covers the itinerant food vendors from whom you buy golgappas, chats, and momos and all those enterprises and individuals that come in direct or indirect contact with food including kirana store owners and transporters who merely facilitate resale.
The end of street food?
Registration as a petty food business operator requires adherence to a long list of conditions of sanitation and hygiene as contained in Schedule 4 of the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses Regulations, 2011 and the failure to comply with these conditions can lead to penal liability. Though enough notice has been given for these regulations, small businesses, especially street vendors, are definitely not prepared for this legislation. At the moment, they have two options: either close the establishment or grease the palms of inspecting officials to stay in business.
The harsh reality is that food safety standards in India are quite low. Even consumers often appreciate the low cost of food over food safety standards. If these establishments adhered strictly with the licensing conditions, the price advantage would cease. The willingness to comply with these rules is therefore low. Combined with the discretion given to the Food Safety Officer who is from the local municipality, this is a breeding ground for a lot of corruption and harassment. The conditions are drafted so loosely that the inspecting officer can easily reject or revoke an application or license.
These conditions relating to food safety hold the potential to improve and standardise hygiene and sanitation across the food industry. To achieve this object however, apart from implementing the law, the concerned authority should train PFBs in the law. For example, water-related diseases may reduce with the requirement that all operators should use potable water. However, there is no information about what constitutes potable water. An itinerant biryani seller near my house pointed to the nearest tap as his source of water. He does not understand the concept of potable water for he himself drinks water from the nearest hand pump. Secondly, with the high amount of dust and pollution in the environment, it will be very difficult for PFBs to clear the scrutiny of the food safety officials. So even though this is a well-intentioned legislation, it can sound the death knell for numerous small food businesses.
The Act can also have a significant impact with respect to packaged foods. The labeling requirements have been made stringent and all information relating to the product, which affects a human being, must be printed on the product. The Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011 have comprehensively laid out requirements such as those for labeling of ingredients and nutritional information. Importantly, consumers can now look forward to uniform label patterns across different product categories. The Act has the potential ensure that food manufacturers and traders follow a consistent standard for food safety throughout the process of food delivery from the source to the end consumer if regular inspections are carried out by the concerned officials. The possibility of adulterated or sub-standard food being served can also reduce to a large extent if tests are carried out regularly at in-house laboratories or Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (“FSSAI”) accredited laboratories as mandated by the regulations stipulated in Schedule 4 of the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses Regulations, 2011.
The Act is a classic case of implementing the law without understanding the ground reality. In the current form, the unorganised sector will get severely affected and a number of livelihoods lost. I shall explore more about this in the second part of this article.
(Aruj is the Chief Bhukkad at Bhukkad, a natural fast food brand.)