How unsafe and unhygienic are your restaurants? Use RTI to find out

If you can’t resist indulging at wayside eateries, or may be even swanky restaurants, you might not know it, but you could be paying for a bout of indigestion or something more serious like hepatitis-B. It’s because we don’t take food safety and hygiene seriously. Section 4 of the RTI Act can help you find out critical details about your favourite food places, so you can be more careful

Last weekend, I was invited to a birthday lunch at a Gujarati thali restaurant where 'aamras' was being served unlimited! While the guests savoured the delicious feast, I was wondering about the hands that must have squeezed out the pulp!

Ever since an inspection of files at the health department of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) revealed that even posh restaurants, some of them in five-star hotels, did not adhere to necessary food safety and kitchen and staff hygiene norms, I am cautious when eating out, and I try to spread the word about why one should avoid throwing so much money for poor service that could likely affect one's health, and probably threaten one's life also.

It all began last year, when we published a report on the increasing cases of gastroenteritis and stomach-related cases in Pune, and a couple of prominent doctors pointed to unhygienic eateries as the culprit. I asked Partha Sarathi Biswas, a young journalist and the bureau chief of Intelligent Pune, the news weekly that I was managing then, to inspect documents pertaining to food inspection reports by food inspectors of the health department who monitor food quality and staff hygiene at restaurants, twice a year.

Partha invoked Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act five times, and collected inspection reports of nearly 300 restaurants located in different localities of Pune. Food inspectors of the health department, whose sole purpose is to check whether restaurants adhere to food safety and health standards, carry with them a form that is filled during an inspection. It contains a list of 29 items that the restaurant is expected to adhere to strictly under the BPMC (Bombay Provisional Municipal Corporation) Act.

To our surprise, such big names like Hotel Blue Diamond, Mainland China, Madhouse Grill, Green Plaza (in upper crust Koregaon Park) and Wadeshwar (an extremely popular udipi place on Fergusson College Road that is patronised by youngsters), were among the restaurants which were sent notices for the "area of the kitchen where food was prepared/cooked or sold and the area where utensils were washed-(found to be) not clean.'' (Note: These are inspection reports for various months in 2010. If any of these restaurants have improved their cleanliness, after receiving notices from the PMC, we welcome it.)

Most shockingly, none of the restaurants (which were inspected) had conducted medical examination of their staff even once, let alone on a regular basis. When asked, most of the restaurant managers had the audacity to say that they could not afford to do it. This means that we could be eating food served by, or even prepared by someone who is suffering from skin disease-let your imagination run if you care to understand the vulnerability of a customer paying good money for probable illnesses.

Parameters used for inspection

When the food inspector goes on inspection, he checks on all the 29 parameters. After the inspection, the food inspector also jots down his own observations on the form. Then the establishment is sent a notice, to rectify the shortcomings that could be hazardous for customers who consume the food.

If it is found on a second inspection that the eatery is continuing to defy norms, the municipal commissioner can suspend the licence for a specific period, or even order the closure of the restaurant in serious cases of food safety violations.

Here are some jottings that Partha found on the inspector's forms:
> "Cobwebs noticed on the walls of the kitchen." - This observation was made by the food inspectors who checked the Green Plaza hotel on Baner Road.
> "Prepared food not covered properly before serving." - Taj Blue Diamond, Mainland China on DP Road and Shingri at Koregaon Park were ticked off for this by food inspectors.
> "Proper care is not taken to prevent the contamination of food by dust, insects, etc, where food is prepared." - Taj Blue Diamond, Shingri on Boat Club Road, Green Plaza in Koregaon Park and Mainland China on DP Road.
> "The kitchen and storeroom used for storing raw materials is not located at a safe distance from bathrooms, gutter or urinals, to avoid contamination of food." - Not through inspector's documents, but through word of mouth, Partha stumbled upon two big restaurants, Khyber and Mayur Thali on Jangli Maharaj Road, where the exhaust fans of the toilets opened out into the kitchen. Notices were served to these establishments and they promised to rectify this. (Note that this observation was made in the last quarter of 2010. If they have amended the placement of the exhaust fans, we welcome it.)

What did we do?

While surfing the Internet, I stumbled upon an online form (image of the page is reproduced below) called the 'Food Illness Report Page' of the Los Angeles Public Health Department which citizens can fill online, if they believe that they have become sick from eating or drinking something, somewhere, and the department will inquire into the matter.

We approached the Municipal Commissioner of Pune, Mahesh Zhagde, and requested him to adopt a similar online process on the PMC's website. Mr Zhagde told us that "this is the best form of social audit" and he included it in the PMC's budget for 2010-2011. The online facility has not yet seen the light of day. Mr Zhagde was unceremoniously transferred, recently, for his stern action against illegal encroachments. We must pursue this matter with the new municipal commissioner, Mahesh Pathak.

You too can replicate this in your city, so that the local government is pressurised to check such practices and take corrective action.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected].)

1 decade ago
Good approach. There is saying "Cleanliness is next to God. But as the author pointed out cleanliness is lacking in most of the hotels, kitchen cleaning of utensils, Bearer use their bare hands for taking the stuff etc. Owners of hotels should exercise certain controls over their employees and inspect the places, but unfortunately, it never happen. When money becomes important factor, every otherthing goes off. There was a lyric in tamil - Thiefs themselves should reform otherwise thefts could not eradicated.
1 decade ago
Hi Vinita
Thanks for an eye opener. Just want to confirm the RTI process for this.

1. As per my understanding, I file an RTI app u/s 4 with PIO of BMC in my case.
2. So Do I ask for Hotels in a specific ward or just ask for the reports by Hotel Names?
3. I should ask to see the records and make notes/take pics?? I recall the act states that first 30 mins is Free & then chargable for every addl 30 mins. But when the timer starts is not clarified. Can U pl run me through the steps so I don't falter
Thanks in adv
Vinita Deshmukh
Replied to Sanjay comment 1 decade ago
1. yes that's right
2. it's better if you ask locality wise, you can choose one or more neighbourhoods - it's easier to check the records
3. yes you can take notes but ask for Photostat copies as well for which you will be charged Rs.2 per page. As for charges after 30 mins, until now i have not been charged, officially it is free for one hour and then it is Rs.5 for every 15 mins thereafter. No photographs are permitted though. all the best.
Replied to Vinita Deshmukh comment 1 decade ago
Thanks Vinita.
Am just wondering - don't the Muni corp give a copy of these reports to Hotels so they are also aware of shortcomings & take corrective action?
Also why such reports are not posted on the Muni corp website? Nowadays some agencies like ITax, Anti-corruption have started posting names of defaulters on their website. If such steps are taken for hotels etc which are having public as only consumers, they will comply faster. What are ur views?
Replied to sanjay comment 1 decade ago
yes they do give copies of the reports to hotels but hotels take them lights as there is not stringent penalty imposed. Very right - all this information must be posted on the municipal corporation's website - this would indeed force hotels to adhere to safety norms
1 decade ago
very usefull
Mita Banerjee
1 decade ago
Once our entire team got food poisoning after eating at one of the five star hotels mentioned in your articles. it only shows how unsafe it is to eat out. it seems we need stomachs of iron!
1 decade ago
Great article, thanks, and as a thumb rule, we try to eat at restaurants where we can see the kitchen or the cooking is done in front of you. There is a very simple and solid reason why truckers, who live on dhaba food, would rather eat at dhabas where the cooking is done in front of them and served straight from the tandoor as well as kadhais. Good luck to all of us . . .
1 decade ago
Excellent and bold article. Eye opener for most of the mumbaikars, majority of whom have an unwritten rule of eating out (mandatory) on weekends, paying heavyily for first waiting endlessly for the turn and then eat junk, unhygienic food. We as a family are completely against this type of norm and eat out only on rare occassions such as birthdays, anniversaries, thus limiting exposure to such unhygienic food. Once at Taj Hotel, Nasik, I had a wooden piece, cut off from wooden spatula, in my omelette. I photographed it and even taped the conversation with F & B Manager when he accepted the mistake. I have several such instances while eating out (even though so rare) and hence hate when it comes to eating out. Unfortunately in such incidences the maximum compensation is just the waiver or reimbursement of the charges.

Keep it up - Moneylife
Meenal Mamdani
1 decade ago
Restaurants must be inspected and the reports should be available to the interested public.
All violations are not of the same magnitude therefore some countries have a system where a restaurant is rated A to F depending on the number and severity of violations. The restaurants are compelled to display this rating prominently on their premises. If this is adopted in India, then consumers can make an informed decision to patronize the eatery or not.
Yes, it is true that food inspectors can be bribed and also that food inspectors can extort, but that is no reason to avoid implementing a regulation that affects public hygiene.
Stephen Wong
1 decade ago
Hepatitis B is a blood-borne disease and can only be transmitted through blood to blood contact. Next time before I buy your magazine, I will insisted that it is certified clean to be free of germ and I will not shake your hands until you can show me proof that you are free of any skin diseases.
Hemant Bhatia
Replied to Stephen Wong comment 1 decade ago
Thats why its our tradition to say NAMASTE ,insted of shaking hands (:
Stephen Wong
Replied to Hemant Bhatia comment 1 decade ago
What a good idea. Namaste. May be we should all wear a mask before talking to each other and have our medical clearance certificate clearly displayed - "I am certified to be GERM free"
Replied to Stephen Wong comment 1 decade ago
My apologies to Stephen and everyone - Please read as Hepatitis A.
Stephen Wong
Replied to Vinita comment 1 decade ago
Many thanks for the clarification. It is greatly appreciated.
p k
1 decade ago
i am not surprised.. in mumbai also once, after eating in five star hotel in nariman point area, one of my swiss guest was sick!! loose motion etc.......

all these things can be purchased in india for a price.

best is mouthshut .com kind of network to warn public about quality of food .

in uae , in spite of hot and humid weather , i have not come accross food poisoning in last 2 years..rule are followed and are same for all restaurents.
1 decade ago
further nonsense from regulator loving moneylife staffers.
restaurants are in business because people enjoy eating there and not because assorted babus vouch for their babus inspect your grandma's home to certify it is clean? i am willing to bet,restaurants take a far more care of hygiene-as accepted in by indian society's norms.they risk losing business if even one incident of food poisoning blows out of doesnt mean that accidents wont happen or someone will not be sloppy.but we dont need bureaucrats to tell us if the food is good.we can find it for ourselves.

people like you imagine that everyone is out to loot strangers and only because some big babu is looking over their shoulders,things move smoothly 99% of the time.wake up you remnants of license permit raj.wake up and smell the signs of freedom and responsibility for your actions
Replied to pravin comment 1 decade ago
hi there..
in pune on j m road i had cocroach in my idli shivsagar...there was no apology from the was taken casually. i have stopped going to shivsagar after this incidence.

it is one of the most crowded place!!
Replied to P K comment 1 decade ago
good choice.i too like to avoid shops that sell me bad goods.
Replied to pravin comment 1 decade ago
What your problem, buddy? Agreed, nobody inspected the food prepared by your grandma because there was a trust element. But see how your grandfather has behaved in public places while delivering your food and you will come to know the need have checks on food vendors, including hotels, restaurants etc.
Replied to Foodie comment 1 decade ago
my problem is that the author wants babus to determine what is safe for you and me to eat.i say BS.i determine what is safe by a)reading restaurant reviews b)checking out the crowd c)visual inspection of surroundings .the trust factor comes from voluntary private observations and not some taxpayer funded babu inclined to take bribes.
what amazes me is people like you think that a babu is equipped with knowledge thousands of independent customers like you and me are not. that is naivete beyond belief.
the "trust" factor is indeed what restaurants thrive on.didnt you get that from my post?
the trust doesnt come because some MPSC babu told us it is came from people's observations.and that costs nothing but an ordinarily alert mind.
you want to know who lobbied for this food health inspection babu? . entrenched restaurants themselves.they wanted to limit and thwart competition and therefore set up an impediment for new start up restaurants/food is always like this.the entrenched players like to get someone in power to serve their interests.and you think the babu is working for the paying customer.what a ludicrous idea
Replied to pravin comment 1 decade ago
Pravin does not seem to have comprehended the gravity of the situation in India regarding food safety norms that are thrown to the winds by restaurants. Well, if an authority like a municipal corporation enforces strict and regular inspection of restaurants, then surely they would all ensure stringent standards of food safety, clean kitchen and medical examination of the kitchen and serving staff. Please don't under rate babus - you cannot generalise that all babus are corrupt or inefficient. Once, during a prestigious anniversary function of a leading newspapers which was held at Hotel Blue Diamond in Pune, 125 of us were down with food poisoning. Neither did the management apologise - instead it was trying to find excuses. So many lodged police complaints. Recently there have been cases of mass food poisoning in hostels of prestigious educational institutes. These should also come under the scanner of the department. I guess this article is ahead of its time in the sense that majority of us are `conditioned' into having full faith in the restaurant managements. How lucky they are as we easily let off our purse strings and fatten theirs. No questions asked! Don't we need to grow?
Replied to Vinita comment 1 decade ago
you are not getting my point at all.nobody is asking you to trust hotel managements.if they cheated you and made you sick,then you should take them to the consumer if those silly courts dont work,lets not blame the hotel wallas.
the babu is NOT working for YOU. please please PUHLEEASE read some basic public choice theory if you want to get rid if your naive faith in babudom and people in power looking after your interests.
hotel blue diamond must be a fraud.i dont hold any brief for them.125 of you should take them to court.they would rather apologise and reimburse you than face the ignominy of losing reputation ,in most coses.what about those police complaints? they didnt work?
the municpal babu has NO incentive to work for your benefit.whatever happens properly happens inspite of the system and not because of it.dont try to fix a system that CANNOT work.a dog's tail will remain crooked.
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