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A healthy plateful of phuchkas

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Kolkata's high street food standards are soon going to be the yardstick other states will measure their sidewalk kiosks by. Kolkata's safety standards for its delectable street food - oily Mughlai parathas, jhal muri (puffed rice mixed with vegetables ), hot kathi rolls, phuchkas (gol gappas) and Chowmein (mixed noodles) - have now inspired the Union health ministry to emulate the model across India.

The Kolkata model - an exhaustive landmark study conducted around a decade back helped the finger-licking street food in the City of Joy become safer (and was ultimately emulated by Bangkok also) - was presented in to other states last month by the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI).

According to a recent Union health ministry survey in 16 cities, over 90 per cent of street food was found to be unsafe for consumption. Providing food with less investment and more profit was also found to be the first preference of the vendor rather than meeting the quality and safety requirements.

The FSSAI is therefore thinking on setting up a national coordinating committee that will identify the environmental and contamination risks that street foods face and work towards making them more hygienic.

Street food - a clear favourite with the rich and the poor alike across India, has never received enough attention from the government. For the first time, the FSSAI is looking to create a city-wise action plan on how to make street food safer, more palatable and presentable. FSSAI chairman K Chandramouli told TOI-Crest : "Street food is a clear favourite with everyone. It is our focus now to make it safe. We will finalise a generic street food safety protocol in a month. "

Sources told TOI-Crest that as a pilot project, 56 areas or streets in eight cities (including four metros) will be selected which will be developed as model street food zones. Food commissioners will then identify vendors with the help of the police and develop a protocol after studying the water source being used to make the food, wash the utensils, how the food is being cooked and stored and the garbage disposed. Next, the local municipal commissioner will head a food and water policy council for each area.

Indira Chakravarty, former director of the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health who had conducted the highly acclaimed Kolkata study says, "Street food caters to the largest number of people in India. It is not the nutritional content of the street food that is under scrutiny but the hygienic and environmental contamination. The national street food safety plan will work out how to make the police and municipal corporation join hands with street food vendors to make the change sustainable. "

Professor Chakravarty said the Kolkata study examined various hazards to food safety and the environment. "In India, a regulation pertaining to artificial colours lists the approved colours, the foods that can contain them and the amount that can be used. However, vendors were not aware of these regulations. Metanil yellow (a textile colour) had a long history of use as a substitute for saffron. Many users didn't know that it is not permitted. Unauthorised use of food additives was detected in foods like sharbats and jalebis. Various food samples also contained saccharin which is not permitted, " Chakravarty said.

The study also found that the street foods were prone to microbiological contamination. As expected, the standard plate count (SPC is a procedure for estimating the number of live heterotrophic bacteria in water) of samples of lassi, idli and dahi vada was very high. Harmful bacteria like Salmonella or Shigella were detected.

Escherichia coli, chiefly an indicator of faecal contamination, were detected in 55 per cent of the samples tested raising suspicion of improper food handling practices.

The water used for drinking, cooking and washing of fruits and vegetables was found to be contaminated in 47 per cent of the samples analysed.

Some of the suggestions from the Kolkata study included providing a photo identity card for each food hawker, demarcation of pavements for hawking, bins to be provided by the municipality for waste disposal and safe water to be supplied by the corporation for washing, cooking and drinking.

There was also a suggestion that hawkers be provided with bank loans to obtain kiosks. Training was a main component of the street food policy. The Kolkata study provided street food vendors with better knowledge of proper hygienic practices and the use of food additives. "Such training would improve the safety of the foods prepared and sold by vendors, " says Chakravarty.

The Kolkata study was conducted in areas like College Square, Sealdah, Dalhousie Square and Gariahat. A total of 911 consumers were interviewed. As many as 33 per cent of the consumers interviewed purchased street foods on a daily basis, while about 23 per cent patronised the stalls one to four times per week. Consumers spent Rs 40 to Rs 400 per month on street foods, according to their income and tastes.

The nutritional value of the food sold in the streets was assessed by analysing some popular meals. An average 500 g meal contained 20 to 30 g of protein, 12 to 15 g of fat (vegetable fat) and 174 to 183 g of carbohydrate and provided approximately 1000 kcal. The meals cost between Rs 4 and Rs 8. "The analysis indicates that street foods may be the least expensive means of obtaining a nutritionally balanced meal outside the home. At present Kolkata alone will have over 2. 5 lakh vendors and the numbers will keep increasing leaps and bounds, thanks to urban migration and food prices increasing, " adds Chakravarty.

The study also revealed that licensing the street food vendors would appear to be a prerequisite for controlling street foods - taking samples, analysing the food, reporting and taking action as necessary. "We helped street food vendors in Kolkata and Howrah to sell their products in a clean area. Once their hygiene levels went up, so did their sales, " says Chakravarty.

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