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The Congress government in Punjab directs online food delivery firms to display hygiene ratings of all food order and supply companies registered and give 90 days for compliance

By Vipin Pubby

Every now and then, newspapers carry stories about a diner who placed an order through a food delivery firm finding a lizard in his soup or an online food chain adding an unintended portion of a cockroach to the home delivered biryani. Such incidents may become a thing of the past thanks to a commendable step taken by the Punjab government to introduce hygiene ratings for online supply of food items. In other words, it means that the food prepared and delivered by online companies shall have to maintain a minimum standard of hygiene during its preparation.

Over the last few years, there has been a sharp increase in the trend to order food online. The trend was encouraged and promoted by branded multinational companies, many of which had begun operating only “take-away” outlets. It was economical for these companies because these could avoid overheads like renting out large premises and maintaining them, employing staff, etc, and save on the overheads.

The model was adopted by small-time entrepreneurs who rented out small premises or kitchens to produce food only for delivery. It is well known that several of these small companies were run under highly unhygienic conditions with no one to ensure basic standards.

In western countries, where the trend of ordering food online has been in vogue for several years, the governments concerned have been enforcing stiff regulations. Sudden inspections are carried out at the premises where food is prepared and there are rules that food entrepreneurs have to follow.

Incidentally, a large numbers of Indians abroad are running businesses involving preparation of food particularly in view of the immense popularity of the “Indian curry”. However, these premises are regularly checked and immediate closures are enforced if these enterprises do not meet the minimum standard of hygiene and cleanliness. Most such entrepreneurs and individuals are kept on their toes by the law enforcing authorities.

The boom in the online food industry in the country had so far given a free hand to such individual efforts or industry. According to an agency report, the online food delivery market in India, has been growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 90 per cent and is expected to reach $4 billion by the first quarter of next year.

The report said that the trend is likely to grow even faster. In metros, for example, hundreds of thousands of young couples—both working professionals—are preferring to order food online. The same is true for the children who prefer “junk food” to the food cooked at home.

The Punjab government deserves praise for taking the initiative in introducing regulations to ensure that the food delivered through online services maintains minimum standards of hygiene and quality. As per an official release, Brahm Mohindra, health minister Punjab, has directed all the online food order and supply companies to display hygiene ratings of all the food business operators registered/affiliated with them. Giving three months for its compliance, the minister has said that those who do not comply within this period will be delisted.

Commissioner Food and Drug Administration Punjab-cum-Director Tandrust Punjab Mission, KS Pannu, said that online food order and supply companies take online orders from consumers for the supply of food and deliver the same after procuring it from the Food Business Operators (FBOs)  associated with them. Under the normal circumstances, the consumer directly approaches the FBOs and therefore, through primary contact, the consumer is aware about the quality of food and the hygienic conditions under which food is prepared and served.

The online order and delivery mechanism of food supply has created a physical disconnect between the consumer and the food maker. Hence, “the onus of ensuring the quality of food and the hygienic condition under which food is prepared, has shifted to the intermediate food delivery mechanism,” said Pannu. It is in this context that it has been decided that all the online food orders and delivery companies shall ensure that FBOs registered and affiliated with them have their hygiene rating done from the FSSAI empanelled companies, he added.

Giving details of the rating mechanism, Pannu said that hygiene rating on a scale of five smilies is undertaken as per the guidelines of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The National Food Authority has empanelled 23 companies to conduct the audit and hygiene rating of FBOs. He said that a meeting has been held with the representatives of major online food order and supply companies operational in Punjab like Zomato, Swiggy, Uber Eats and Food Panda and they have been sensitised on the issue.

Authorities have issued a formal letter to them wherein they have been directed to get the hygiene rating done of all the FBOs registered with them and only those who are at a higher level of hygiene rating (bearing three or more smilies), should be allowed to supply food under the online food orders or delivery mechanism. They have also been told that the website of their companies should contain details regarding hygiene rating of the food establishments registered with them so that consumer is empowered to take informed decision before placing the online order for food delivery.

The order has said that the date of rating or inspection is also to be mentioned in the page containing details about the food making unit on the company’s website or portal or App. Besides, the periodical inspection of their registered FBOs is to be ensured so that they continue to follow hygiene standards in food preparation and service practices.

According to Pannu, it has been mandated that the packaging in which delivery of food is done to the consumer by the online food order and supply companies, should bear prominent information with regard to the status of hygiene rating of the unit supplying the food for delivery to the consumer. As per FSSAI norms, each FBO will get a score based on self-assessment questionnaire for compliance with food hygiene and safety procedures. In addition, physical inspection and validation will be done by food and drug administration, Punjab. A hygiene rating will be given in the range of 0 to 5 as per their level of compliance.

While the step is no doubt laudable, the trade and industry leaders feel that the new rules could lead to corruption and harassment of manufacturers and traders. One hopes that the government will act to allay such fears.

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