Hemant Koshiya: ‘Open kitchens will help customers make informed choices, hotels increase business’

At present, the state has more than 5,000 registered hotels and restaurants, especially in the densely populated eight municipal corporations, some along the highways and a few in the smaller towns.

A November 6 notification by Gujarat’s Commissioner of Food and Drug Control Administration (FDCA) that unveiled the first-of-a-kind initiative has met with a largely positive response. FDCA Commissioner Hemant Koshiya divulges more details about the initiative in his talk with Sohini Ghosh.

How was the idea of opening up kitchens to customers conceived?

A lot of our department’s work involves fieldwork and it was during one such visit that I stopped to have snacks at a highway restaurant. While the outside ambience was clean and overall great, I was curious about the kitchen conditions. They did not know who I was and I did not tell them. I saw that the kitchen entry had a ‘no admission’ board. When I saw the kitchen, it was very dirty and unhygienic, so much so that I thought I cannot eat there. I came back to my office and then decided that I want to act on such entry restrictions come (lunar) New Year (post-Diwali). So we thought that doors can be replaced by glass panels or where the same may not be possible, a glass window be fixed that allows one to see the kitchen and its conditions without risking contamination.

There are food safety officers, then why was the need felt to open up kitchens?

At present, the state has more than 5,000 registered hotels and restaurants, especially in the densely populated eight municipal corporations, some along the highways and a few in the smaller towns. I have 250 food safety officers. So it is not possible with the handful of staff to monitor the day-to-day activities of all the restaurants.

How did you go about implementing it?

I issued an internal circular to all my 43 Designated Officers (DO), who are the district-level licensing authorities for food under the Food Safety Act, across the state.

The circular stated that in all restaurants/hotels in your jurisdiction kitchen doors need to be removed and that there should be a glass panel/glass window so that operations within the kitchen can be seen.

Simultaneously, the next day, I also wrote to the president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Gujarat, asking them to circulate our move widely among their fraternity for greater compliance.

While the circular was not legally binding, it became ethically binding. It is a win-win situation because there were already hotels and restaurants with open kitchen concepts and customers can make an informed choice. Secondly, those who maintain standards and are law-abiding should not have a problem to willingly showcase the standards maintained in their kitchen. It will only increase their business. Thirdly, it also decreases the workload on us, the government.

If not complying with the hygiene standards, under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, Section 56 (the penalty for unhygienic or unsanitary processing or manufacturing of food), they can be fined up to one lakh rupees. On November 8, we told all our DO that whichever food safety officers are under you, tell them to survey five restaurants/hotels in their jurisdiction to gauge compliance, minus any coercive action. Till now, we have not had any complaints

What has been the outcome so far?

As of Tuesday, we have surveyed more than 3,000 hotels/restaurants across the state. Nearly 75% hoteliers have proactively removed any such signs restricting entry; 60% already had a glass window or panel prior to the notification. Those not compliant, have been educated and made aware and we are expecting full compliance within a week. Surat has seen the highest compliance with up to 500 restaurants/hotels now allowing entry into their kitchens. Their model of forming a team dedicated to this has shown encouraging results and the best practice can be replicated all over the state.

I met CEO of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India Pawan Kumar Agarwal and its chairperson, Rita Teaotia, on November 13 appreciated this move and I was told that three to four states have called Agarwal, requesting him to implement this pan-India.

Were there any initial inhibitions?

Surprisingly, we have not faced any opposition to this move. Hoteliers had some reservation initially, thinking that customers can access any area which may lead to contamination of food. I clarified that our intention was to allow for see-through accessibility. Once the air was cleared on that, everyone has welcomed the move. I believe that also has to do with the fact that the restaurants realise that opposing this may send out a wrong message (for their own business).

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