Operation Shawarma: Stale food, rotten system

The recent food safety raids and seizure of stale items from eateries have triggered apprehensions among consumers and grumbles in the hospitality industry.

Published: 11th May 2022 06:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th May 2022 04:05 PM   |  A+A-

A special squad under the food safety department inspects the kitchn of an eatery at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday | B P Deepu

A special squad under the food safety department inspects the kitchn of an eatery at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday | B P Deepu

Express News Service

As part of Operation Shawarma, food safety officials carried out around 1,930 inspections at eateries selling meat-based dishes in Kerala. While industry stakeholders allege harassment, consumers call for action against officials as well.

KOCHI: The recent food safety raids and seizure of stale items from eateries have triggered apprehensions among consumers and grumbles in the hospitality industry. At least 181 restaurants were shut down and over 630 issued notices across Kerala over the past few days, following inspections spurred by the shocking ‘shawarma death’ of a 16-year-old girl in Kasaragod. 

As part of the special drive — Operation Shawarma — food safety officials carried out around 1,930 inspections at eateries selling meat-based dishes. At least 282.5kg stale meat was seized from from hotels and restaurants across the state.

Consumers, understandably, are rattled. “Eating out is unavoidable for many people like us. It’s unfortunate that eateries have been selling stale food at exorbitant prices,” says A Raju, a techie based in Thiruvananthapuram. “These restaurants hike food prices without any regulation and yet fail to ensure quality. They eventually walk free after paying fines. Food safety officials should be held responsible for violations.”

Kochi-based businessman and foodie Mathew M Joseph terms the scenario “pathetic”. “It’s the usual story — sudden spurt of action after a major incident. People would forget it after some days. Where were the officials concerned till now?” he asks. “Would punishing a restaurant owner or chef alone help? The authorities who failed to do their jobs properly should be penalised first.”

‘Just a farce’ 
The ongoing inspections and raids are just a farce, believes COFRA Consumer Forum general secretary Sashidharan Nair. “It’s the responsibility of the government to ensure safe and hygienic food for the citizens,” he says. “There are strict clauses under the Food Safety Act. But, unfortunately, they are not being enforced. The food safety department is understaffed. 

Officials are serving notices and creating a media hype instead of taking solid action against rule violators.”Many consumers call for more transparency and safety mechanisms at restaurants so that the public can confidently eat out. 

“Earlier, many outlets had installed CCTV cameras and used to screen their kitchens live. Customers could see what was going on inside,” says Salim S, a Thiruvananthapuram resident. “The customer has the right to check the quality of food and hygiene at restaurants.”  Salim is certain that there is nexus between politicians and people in street-food business. “Politicians take money and offer protection. There should be stringent monitoring system,” he adds. 

‘Blow to tourism industry’
The Kerala Hotels and Restaurants Association (KHRA) has slammed the food safety raids, terming the drive a publicity stunt. It also cautions that the raids would impact the tourism sector. “Instead of taking action against the violators, the food safety authorities are prioritiing publicity,” says KHRA state president G Jayapalan, who is based in Kochi. 

“We are not against enforcement of rules. The association strongly believes violators should be booked and penalised. But what is going on now is giving out a wrong message. They are seizing stale food and putting it on display. They are not taking any action other than slapping notices. Violators walk free after paying fines.”  

Jayapalan claims 90 per cent of the restaurants that were shut down had faced action not because of stale food, but for license or registration issues. “The names of several restaurants were unnecessarily given to the media,” he notes. “This is going to adversely impact the tourism industry, which is just returning back to normal after the pandemic crisis.”  People in food business, meanwhile, complain that food safety authorities have been harassing and delaying permission to reopen eateries even after implementing corrective measures. 

“There is a delay in getting permission to reopen the eateries which were shut down after the raids,” says KHRA Thiruvananthapuram secretary B Vijayakumar. “There is no doubt it’s the responsibility of the eateries to maintain hygiene. Unfortunately, thousands of food business operators are bearing the brunt of violations by some eateries. Many food business operators have complained of harassment by food safety officials,” he says.Vijayakumar also accuses officials of turning a blind eye towards thattukadas and food trucks functioning without licences.  

‘Raids to continue’ 
Commissioner of Food Safety V R Vinod says the primary objective is clear — to ensure safe food for the public. Hence, the raids would continue. Juice outlets, too, would come under the scanner in the coming days, he adds. “We will take strict action against violators. We have decided to initiate legal action immediately with the help of police,” says Vinod. “Our field officers are facing a lot of threat and intimidation. The department will protect them. We will continue the drive against unhygienic eateries and stale fish.The demand for juice and beverages has gone up because of the humid climate. We will be focusing on juice shops to check the quality of water being used.” 



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