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Lid off state’s food safety farce
Quality control monitor unable to enforce licence and registration rules as national deadline lapses today

The time has come to watch out for not what you eat, but where you eat.

Come Tuesday, a majority of establishments in Jharkhand dealing in eats will become illegal — at least on pen and paper — with the extended nationwide deadline for licence/registration under the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006) coming to an end.

While February 4, 2014, will come and go, food control bosses will have dismal numbers to flaunt. Insiders admit that the eatery count across the state runs into lakhs, but until Monday, just 2,350 licences were sought and 5,350 registrations took place.

“The figures are nothing, given the bulk of food businesses across Jharkhand,” state food controller T.P. Burnwal told The Telegraph. “Some data are yet to be complied, but I don’t think there will be any conspicuous increase in numbers,” he added.

What’s worse is that the food control authorities, who function under the health department, are clueless on the exact number of entities, vendors, hawkers and transporters engaged in the business, directly or indirectly. The obvious reason is that teenaged Jharkhand never used its immature brain to devise concrete ways to keep records.

The central act mandates proper documentation and appropriate action against violators; but mind you, a young Jharkhand is a veteran when it comes to mocking rules. The bans on plastic and gutkha sale are glaring examples.

Coming back to guarded grub, the said act had originally come into force last year. However, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) — the Centre’s nodal agency for quality control and monitoring — extended the deadline by a year till this February 4. Sadly, the response still isn’t encouraging.

The fee for acquiring licence/registration is paltry and depends on turnover. For vendors, cart owners, food manufacturers, retail outlet owners, transporters, et al, whose annual income is less than Rs 12 lakh, registration for a fee of Rs 100 is enough.

For those with a turnover between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 25 lakh, the licence fee is Rs 2,000. Traders above this bracket have to pay Rs 3,000. Manufacturers (turnover Rs 25 lakh and above) have to shell out Rs 5,000, while giant companies, which manufacture and also maintain food depot/stocks under the same brand name, are required to pay Rs 7,500.

Burnwal couldn’t offer any satisfactory reason behind why the department couldn’t pursue many to seek licence or registration. “People are either unaware or uncaring. There have been many workshops across the state in the past year, but nothing concrete came of them,” he said.

Radheysham Pandey, a roll vendor on HB Road, expressed ignorance. “I don’t know anything about registration or licence, but I try to ensure items I use are properly cleaned.”

Manpower is also an issue. “We don’t have as many food inspectors as we need. More than 50 per cent posts in 24 districts are lying vacant,” Burnwal contended.

A year ago, the health department had roped in around 200 medical officers, asking them to collect at least two samples a month for quality testing. Food officials claim the plan fizzled out following a Jharkhand High Court remark. “The court asked whether medical officers must collect food samples or treat people first. We dropped the idea,” said an official.

So, what now? “After tomorrow (Tuesday), all non-licenced or unregistered entities will be pronounced illegal and we will take punitive actions against them as per provisions in the act,” he said.

Only time will tell if the food control authorities mean what they say.