More than three out of every five eateries and other food businesses in the city, including 50% of government-run outlets, operate without a valid licence.
According to data available with the state food safety department, only 9,900 of 24,636 food businesses in Chennai, including restaurants, street food stalls, fruits and vegetable shops, and other retail outlets that sell edibles, have either registered with the department or procured licences.
The Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Business) Regulations, 2011, mandates a licence for any food business with an annual turnover of more than Rs 2 lakh. Those with a lower turnover must register with the state food safety department. After eight extensions, the last deadline for acquiring licences expired in August 2016.
R Kathiravan, food safety officer, Chennai, said although the department sporadically inspects illegal units based on tips, licensing would help to keep tabs. “Before we issue licences or register them, we check the quality of water and materials used for cooking, hygiene of workers and other sanitary conditions,” he said.
According to the act, a vendor who fails to register or obtain a licence is liable to be forced to shut shop, pay a fine ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 10 lakh or face imprisonment of up to six months. But food safety officials said they have not suspended the licence of any city operator so far. While senior officials are tightlipped about why they aren’t penalising errant vendors and manufacturers, sources in the department say the government could be going soft as some of the unlicenced outlets are state-owned. Of the 3,254 government institutions, including fair price shops, Tasmac outlets and anganwadis, only 1,637 have licences or are registered.
Officials only send reminders as they don’t want to be at loggerheads with trade unions. “Bringing retailers, who comprise 25% of the food business in the city , has been particularly difficult. Many are reluctant as they source provisions from unlicenced manufacturers. And this is where maximum adulteration happens,” said an official.
They have, nonetheless, issued improvement notices to more than 1,000 operators in the city for unhygienic cooking practices. But this move combined with the lax implementation of the law is unlikely to instil much confidence in food safety.
Tamil Nadu Traders Federation leader Vikrama Raja said his association opposed the law because at least 30% of the norms under the act are the responsibility of the government.”If the water provided by Metrowater isn’t clean, how can we be faulted? The same goes with garbage piled close to the units and stagnant sewage,” he pointed, adding that several traders’ associations across the country have petitioned the Centre to relax the norms. R Srinivasan, secretary of Tamil Nadu Hotels association, said some members also felt the penalties were too harsh.
Consumer activists feel the law can be enforced with better communication between the government and traders. “Lack of awareness about the act could also be a reason for laxity in compliance,” said T Sadagopan, president of Tamil Nadu Progressive Consumer Center. “In most places meals are prepared and served in unhygienic conditions posing a health risk. And if there’s a law to monitor this, it has to be enforced properly,” he said, adding food safety officials rarely inspect restaurants after licences are issued.