Dr Pallavi Darade, a medical graduate working for the Indian Revenue Services, was deputed as commissioner of Food & Drugs Administration (FDA) in Maharashtra during the last one and a half years. Her notable achievement has been, busting the food safety aura that the trendy and extremely popular online home delivery eateries – Zomato, Swiggy, Foodpanda, and Uber Eats had around them.
In the raids conducted on 350 outlets in Mumbai, 112 were found to have `shocking unhygienic conditions’, besides not having registered food licences. Dr Darade speaks to Vinita Deshmukh of Moneylife on these recent raids, the action taken and consumer awareness to make these outfits accountable.
Moneylife (ML): Your raids on the trendy online food delivery app services, that is, Swiggy, Zomato, Foodpanda, and Uber Eats are commendable. What propelled you to take this action?
Dr Pallavi Darade (Dr Darade): I come from the income tax department where we regularly conduct searches and raids. The Food & Drugs Administration (FDA) department never used to cover many establishments at a time -- it was limited surveillance. I recently found out that online food delivery services - Swiggy, Zomato, Foodpanda, and Uber Eats - which are very popular with the young generation, in particular, were doing business online which is fine but what was appalling was these online sites and apps were not following the license conditions required under the food safety act. Now, the terms and conditions of the licence are formulated to ensure that the food be prepared in hygienic, sanitised conditions; that medical reports of persons who are cooking and serving the food be regularly made available to the authorities. In Zomato, Swiggy, Foodpanda and Uber eats, no such system was being followed. In one go, we checked about 350 outlets of Zomato, Swiggy, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda, of which 112 did not have registration license of the FDA.
ML: How did you know that these 350 outlets were the vendors of these four online food app services?
Dr Darade: We sought from them the list of their vendors. We also collected information online. We found that the 112 outlets did not have the registration licences and so we stopped activities of these 112 outlets immediately. And then we issued show cause notices to Zomato, Swiggy, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda because they cannot get food cooked from people who are not licensed. That is the basic issue and accordingly, we are taking further action.
ML: So what were the conditions that you found appalling?
Dr Darade: It was way beyond appalling I would say – it was extremely shocking because every other child today orders food online. Hence, to find the unhygienic and unsafe conditions in which the food was made, was horrible. Though there was this promise that food has been delivered from this or that outlet, many a time we found that the food was actually delivered from just the dhaba which is next to your house from a very small outlet; at times even from homemade kitchens where there were no proper facilities at all; there was no pest control; kitchens were dirty; the water with which the food has to be made has to be potable water, then the test has to be done to see whether the water was safe or not – that was never done; medical check-ups of people who are serving the food was never done; and extreme unhygienic conditions – sometimes toilets were very close to the kitchens; sometimes dirty clothing was lying around; sometimes the storerooms where raw material was kept was not hygienic – so there were several parameters that we need to apply under the Food Safety Act, which were not complied with and this was the shocking outcome of our searches and raids.
ML: Did you also get complaints from consumers about these online food delivery apps?
Yes, we get complaints often because we have offices across Maharashtra; we also have a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Maharashtra.FDA1/
.); a helpline number (1800222365) and our landline no is 022-265923-63/64/64. So, through all these online and offline support systems, we keep getting complaints. In fact, these complaints were the major ground information sources for us which brought our attention to the seriousness of the issue and made us believe that we need to check it thoroughly.
ML: What is the average number of consumer complaints you received after you took over as the FDA commissioner?
Dr Darade: I cannot give you the exact figures but we used to receive quite a few of them. We have no objection to online food services but then the kind of transparency that is required is lacking here. You cannot do business on a digital platform and say that we will be archaic in our approach. It has to be very transparent. So we have been appealing to them that they should put up the photographs of the kitchens from where the food is being cooked. Digitally, there is so much of space and that kind of transparency can easily come. Rather than writing how many stars are in the reviews and how the food is and just having a lovely photo clicked and put on the site, they should have the basic things in place which are missing. That is what we brought into focus.
ML: But anyway life goes on for them, so what is your action plan? What is the punishment they are going to get to deter them?
Dr Darade: We have stopped these 112 outlets from cooking food – that was one big action that we took. Secondly, we have issued notices of adjudication to the management of these outlets, which means, they have been called into action by the FDA by asking as to why they are getting food from people who don’t have the license. In this case, when the adjudication case is over, then on each and every case, they can be levied a penalty of Rs2 lakh each. So, 112 cases – we have till now issued adjudication notices in 50 to 60 cases -- non-licensee cases to Swiggy and Zomato. So, this action will go on. Plus, our parent body in Delhi, FSSI has already asked Swiggy, Zomato to de-list about 10,500 such restaurants which don’t have licences and yet are enrolled on their portals. So, this was again shocking that they had such a large number of listings of unlicensed restaurants.
ML: Do you think this up to Rs2 lakh penalty is a measly sum for them, considering the roaring business they do?
Dr Darade: We can’t go beyond the rules that are laid down in the Act. Let me remind you that this penalty is for each and every case, where we can go up to Rs2 lakh. Of course, it will depend on individual cases as the adjudication officer will take into account all the factors to fix the penalty. Plus, the very fact that it has come into the media, makes people aware of it. And this itself is a big jolt for them.
ML: So, what is your advice to citizens who get substandard/suspicious food from these online food app services and want to approach you with the complaint?
Dr Darade: We have the Facebook page, the helpline, and landline numbers and we have offices in every district. And I think, as a consumer, you should be aware. Plus you should demand from the food portals and the food apps that transparency has to be there. You see, FDA cannot reach every place. I do want to reach but it is not possible for me. The community should be aware and the consumer should ask the service provider who is making food for them – ask them, you are making this dish for me, tell me how you are making, whether you are following these conditions. In fact, in their feedback they should say, why don’t you show me the photographs of your kitchen, why don’t you give some live feedback on the kitchens from where you are accessing my food or where you are making it; so that kind of transparency wherever possible – digitally, is very easy for them.
Secondly, our FSSI parent body has advised that all the restaurants should have transparent kitchens. Wherever possible you can have transparent kitchens but at times it is not possible to have them. So, in such cases, what we can do is we can make loyal customers of that restaurant, along with the owner visit the kitchen sometimes, whenever it is comfortable for both. I’m not saying during peak hours but when it is not so hectic and when it is convenient for the owner and for the customer. That kind of transparency will bring in a lot of cleanliness and a lot of accountability. Earning money is fine; people need these services, so give it; but then do it responsibly. Follow the conditions stringently – taking a license itself is not enough.
ML: Is it mandatory to have the file of the health record of those cooking and serving food, available for inspection for the customers?
Dr Darade: No, it is not mandatory. Visitors can’t come and demand it – but food safety officers can. It is a right given under the Act to food safety officers. But once people start asking such questions, the pressure will build up for these online food app service entrepreneurs. Plus, whenever these entrepreneurs enrol somebody on their portals, they should check thoroughly whether their vendor adheres to all the stringent norms set by the FDA. However, they are enrolling without doing so which causes the problem.
ML: Are all the reports of the raids that you conducted, available on the public domain, that is your website, under the Right to Information Act?
Dr Darade: We don’t make it available on the public domain unless it is asked for. So if you apply under RTI, some documents can be made available to you . This also has the `third party’ information in it so we will have to seek their permission before we give the information to the RTI applicant.
ML: But this information is of a larger public interest…
Dr Darade: Larger public interest yes, but still it is somebody’s personal information. I go to a restaurant; I’m checking somebody’s kitchen, the name is involved. So, if you procure information of any such enterprise and you put it in the press, then it becomes a problem. If the third party gives us the clearance, yes our information can be given. Through RTI, we can definitely give it.
ML: We had done inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act in the Pune Municipal Corporation to check food inspection raids in Pune’s restaurants and we were promptly given copies as this information is of large public interest.
Dr Darade: That is why we have done the raids. The younger generation is using these online food app services and so their transparency needs to be taken care of. RTI gives you certain rights which you can definitely enforce.