The recent spate of food poisoning incidents in Kerala — including two alleged deaths over the past week — has sparked concern among the people of the state as well as in the government.
As people turn wary of eating out, the government has unleashed its food inspectors on eateries across all 14 districts of Kerala — suspending, and even cancelling, dozens of licenses. It wants to put a lid on the controversy at the earliest, especially as the state is in the midst of its lucrative tourist season.
The Food Safety Department (FSD), meanwhile, is searching for answers, and it appears keen to equally blame both customers and vendors.
Vendors, on the other hand, are speaking of the need for a major overhaul in the food processing methods being followed in the state, as well the food consuming habits of the people — some incidents of food poisoning came from restaurant food that was consumed much later and poorly refrigerated in the interim.
It is for this reason that some vendors are now thinking of refusing to provide perishable dips like mayonnaise in takeaway orders.
Eye on perishable foods
An assistant commissioner of food safety who spoke to South First on condition of anonymity, pointed out that most incidents of food poisoning happened among those who consumed non-vegetarian food items, especially dishes like Al Faham (or barbequed) chicken, kuzhimanthi (a version of a Yemini rice dish), and the popular shawarma which is loaded with mayonnaise.
The officer cited the cases of two recent victims of food poisoning. Though both are still being treated as “suspected” cases, it was after consuming meat products the foodborne illness was triggered.
The officer, however, felt it was not entirely the fault of the eateries concerned.
“In some food poisoning cases, it’s the people who need to be held liable,” the assistant commissioner told South First.
“Meat products tend to spoil quickly. So, it is better to consume it as early as possible. In some cases, we found that the sufferer or sufferers consumed non-veg food after much delay. This affects that food’s time and temperature control, resulting in bacterial growth and thereby causing foodborne illnesses,” the officer said.
“The higher the exposure time of such food, the higher the chance of it getting contaminated.”
The officer said that the Commissionerate of Food Safety in Kerala, responsible for food safety and standards in the state, is drawing up a plan to make people aware of TCS — or temperature control for safety.
The awareness drive will focus on TCS for food items, especially meats, vegetables, and dairy products that require time/temperature control to limit pathogenic micro-organism growth or toxin formation.
The awareness drive will also focus on another key area — the proper handling of leftovers.
Food Safety Commissioner VR Vinod was unavailable for comment when South First reached out to him for a comment on his department’s plans.
According to food safety officers at the district level that South First spoke to, some of the main reasons for food poisoning they found in their inspections were:
- Improper holding temperatures,
- inadequate cooking (in some cases undercooking),
- contaminated equipment, food from unsafe sources,
- and poor personal hygiene.
“Hygienic food handling is the key. Care should also be taken to avoid cross-contamination, if any, in the kitchen and serving area. We came across one such incident in which a food vendor used the same cutting board for raw and cooked/grilled meat,” said a food safety officer.
Another area that food vendors have been found wanting is pest control, he added.
Of stats and deaths
In a state where “food inspection” is already a buzzword, it really began trending after reports of the first suspected food poisoning death of the year on January 3 — that of Rashmi Raj, a nurse with the Government Medical College Hospital in Kottayam.
In a release on January 3, state Health Minister Veena George said that the FSD conducted 429 inspections, resulting in the closure of 43 units. This included 21 units running without a license.
On that day, the minister also revealed the details of Operation Holiday — an inspection drive by the FSD between 24 and 31 December. As part of the drive, 5,864 inspections were conducted across the state and 26 units were temporarily closed for flouting food safety norms.
On 4 January, 547 inspections were conducted. Closure notices were served on 48 units, including 30 units operating without licenses.
It was also stated that between July and December 2022, a total of 46,928 inspections were carried out and 149 units were closed temporarily. An amount of ₹97.60 lakh was collected in fines.
Again, on 5 January, inspections were carried out at 545 units, with 32 of them being asked to cease operation, including 14 without licenses.
More data came into the public domain as fingers were pointed at the FSD. Here are the number of inspections and number of units closed from 2019 to 2022 (July-December):
- 2019: 18,845 inspections, 45 units closed
- 2020: 23,892 inspections, 39 units closed
- 2021: 21,225 inspections, 61 units closed
- 2022: 46,928 inspections, 149 units closed
There was a special crackdown against shawarma-making units on 6 January. Inspections were carried out at 485 units and 16 were closed. Of this, six didn’t have a license.
Even as all this was happening, on 7 January, the second suspected food poisoning death was reported from Kasaragod. The victim was Anju Sreeparvathy, who consumed kuzhimanthi, a spicy dish prepared with rice and meat, and died while undergoing treatment.
As before, the health minister ordered a probe, directing the Commissioner of Food Safety to inquire into the incident and submit findings.
As per data tabled in the Assembly, between May 20, 2021, and December 12, 2022, a total of 15,037 inspections were conducted at hotels/restaurants (not including roadside eateries).
Of this, 4,397 units were served with a rectification notice to comply with the food safety and standards directions, 2,417 units were hit with fines to the tune of ₹1.13 crore, 319 units with a temporary closure notice, and prosecution charges were filed against 33 units for serving unsafe food.
A school girl’s death and a guideline
The current focus on food poisoning can be traced to the May 2022 death of a 16-year-old Kasargod girl, Devananda, after she consumed contaminated shawarma.
Her death resulted in the state Health Department issuing a set of guidelines to be followed while making such dishes.
The guidelines, issued on September 2022, includes mentioning the date and time of the dish’s preparation in the packaging/parcel packets, and a warning not to consume it after an hour. It also warned establishments not following food safety standards of a ₹5 lakh fine and six months imprisonment.
After Devananda’s death, the Kerala High Court, too, had initiated a suo motu public interest litigation on the issue of food safety. It said it intends to keep the suo motu case open so as to constantly monitor the enforcement of food safety standards across the state.
What do restaurant owners say?
According to Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association (KHRA), it is high time that the state government ensured food safety from farm to table.
“It’s a food chain that extends from the farm to the final consumer. Preventing food contamination and reducing the risk of foodborne diseases at all stages should be ensured by the government. Blaming food vendors alone for contamination will do no good,” G Jayapal, KHRA president, told South First.
“For that, good agricultural practices, good hygiene practices, and good manufacturing practices have to be ensured. This will ensure the quality of the food.”
Calling the ongoing inspections an “eyewash”, Jayapal said that the FSD should take strict action against unlicensed food outlets which are mushrooming across the state.
“KHRA is not against inspections. But it must be carried out systematically. Taking strict action against violators, including unlicensed outlets, will help a lot in bringing transparency in the food business,” said Jayapal.
According to him, the state needs a major overhaul in its food chain — and that includes processing, manufacturing, transformation, packaging, storage, transportation, distribution, and sale of food products.
At the same time, taking note of mayonnaise-related food poisoning incidents, he said KHRA is thinking about not giving the same as parcels. It also wants the FSD to conduct a study on the matter.
“Mayonnaise from food outlets is a highly perishable dip. It should be consumed within two hours. But some people consume it long after that, in some cases a day or two after its preparation. To avoid food poisoning we plan not to give it in parcels. But government approval is needed for that,” said Jayapal.
Health minister’s take
According to Veena George, who is also in charge of food safety, a state-level special task force will soon be constituted. This task force will have the power to conduct inspections in any part of the state.
She added that necessary changes will be made to the existing provisions so that once a food outlet’s license is revoked, it will not be that easy to reinstate it.
Another proposal is to set up an online grievance portal/app for the people, where they could rate hotels as per their hygiene and register complaints if any against them.
Establishing more district-level food testing labs (nine districts are yet to have them) is also being considered, she said.
Kerala and Food Safety: In Numbers
- Kerala 6th in the 4th State Food Safety Index of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)
- It was 2nd in the 3rd State Food Safety Index
- Ideal strength of designated officers as per FSSAI is 17; Kerala has 12 (as of May 2022)
- The ideal strength of food safety officers as per FSSAI is 160; Kerala has 119
- Number of adjudication cases filed under food safety during 2021-22: 598
- Number of adjudication cases pending at the beginning of the financial year (2021-22): 1,002
- Number of cases decided: 236
- Expected number of enforcement samples during 2021-22: 19,200
- Number of enforcement samples drawn in the period: 7,868
- Total number of consumer grievances received during 2021-22: 51
- Number of consumer grievances pending: 25