After packaged Rista and Goshtaba conquering the kitchens of Jammu and Kashmir, now it is the turn of traditional Kashmiri staple food (rice/ sabzi/ dal/ mutton) with small-time entrepreneurs establishing homemade units to make them, earning a profit close to Rs 4,000 a day. The cumbersome cooking process to prepare a homemade Kashmiri Thali, be it veg or non-veg, has fuelled the ready-to-eat thali business in Srinagar. The rapid mushrooming of small business units has been to meet this rising demand but the outbreak of Covid 19 has made people wary of various food delivery operators due to health and safety issues. In future, though, the ready-to-eat packaged food business is poised to grow. The market is wide open for all entrepreneurs to target especially the working/ student community.
Take, for example, TiffinAaw, one of the first homemade tiffin services in Srinagar which kick-started operations in 2019. With only one exclusive outlet in the city, it sells more than 30-50 tiffins on a normal day. The serive claims that no preservatives are added to the food, proper hygiene is followed, and the food is packed in eco-friendly plates that cause no environmental degradation. The mantra is to keep the food simple with an ethnic touch of homemade kitchen recipes, thereby maintaining the taste of traditional cuisines of Kashmir.
But the scope of ready-to-eat food in Jammu and Kashmir is yet to be explored compared to other cities of the country where food delivery systems are operational for a long time. Here the question arises, if the system of food delivery at the doorstep is healthy, why there is an increasing trend of lifestyle diseases among the youth? It is the right of every person to know about the food which they are eating. Is it being governed by various regulatory authorities at the state and central level, such as FSSAI? Are there any advisories issued after consultation with experts in this regard?
A sneak peek into the economics of the ready-to-eat food business reveals an initial investment of around Rs 2-5 lakh to set up a homemade kitchen/ processing plant equipped with modern kitchen equipment. The basics, if kept in mind, such as proper cooking methods, hygiene practices, etc, will ensure customer satisfaction. Apart from individual customers, orders can come from retail stores, schools, housing societies, government and private offices. This will open up small-scale industries and provide employment opportunities. The government must consider providing subsidies or incentives for making these successful. A detailed study can be conducted by qualitative and quantitative research methods before making any policy or plan. Other technical gigs are also important for those who intend to take up this as a career or business.
The issue of food additives
Food adulteration is the talk of the town with officials seizing large swathes of contaminated food samples during various inspections. Preservatives are used in almost all food products to extend shelf life. Some people claim to be victims of excessive use of chemicals in pre-cooked and cooked ready-to-eat food products. If the foods are contaminated with excessive additives and are consumed regularly for about a year, they will cause damage to the liver, leading to partial cirrhosis. Most manufacturers of RTE foods add sodium benzoate, glycerine and reused oil that can cause long-term damage to the body. Any unsold inventory at the end of the day is generally sourced by local hotels and canteens at a discounted price. A fairly well-established packaged food venture in Srinagar said that when there are orders which require a shelf life of 3-4 days, permissible levels of ascorbic acid are added. Ascorbic acid is allowed by the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India to be added to food products to extend its shelf life.
When quality matters
Of late, there has been an increase in the number of fast-food restaurants and food units in Kashmir that sell leftover food by recooking/ reheating it after refrigerating it for many days. The best way for them to avoid unnecessary wastage and unethical practices is to cook fresh and as per the demand. It is very important to know the science of foods which tells you to what extent food can be reused after cooking. The nature of food varies as per the cooking method. In Kashmir, the majority of the population is non-vegetarian, so it is very important to know that it is not advisable to keep meat under refrigeration for a long time, as continuous freezing/ reheating can result in deterioration of essential nutrients and consumption of it is considered to be very harmful for human health. Though ready-to-cook products are proving to be a big hit, many have expressed apprehensions over their quality. Many consumers have raised doubts about the quality of the raw materials being used, hygiene of the production units, and whether these businesses are registered. As per the FSSAI regulations, no person shall commence any food business unless he possesses a valid licence. One of the best examples of this was seen a few years back in Kashmir when substandard fish, chicken, and mutton kebabs were banned due to their harmful impact. Every food processing unit has to register with the Food Safety Department. Officials from the department are supposed to conduct a thorough inspection of the unit before issuing a licence. Also, frequent inspections are to be carried out to ascertain whether these units are following the FSSAI guidelines. “Samples must be collected from the food processing units at regular intervals and tested for contaminants, toxins, presence of banned preservatives and chemicals,” the guidelines say. If any unit is found to be not adhering to regulations, strict action like cancellation of licence must be taken.
In the preamble to the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is expected to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for people in India. Therefore, FSSAI has embarked on a large-scale effort to transform the country. Safe foods and healthy diets are critical in the context of India’s high burden of food-borne diseases, under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and growing incidence of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like hypertension, diabetes and heart related diseases. According to statistics, 196 million Indians are undernourished, 113 million are overweight or obese putting them at risk of non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. In Jammu and Kashmir, the trend of lifestyle diseases has been increasing tremendously over the last decade among the lower age groups (25-40). Further, the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country is expected to rise from 100 million in 2011 to 150-177 million in 2030. This will directly impact the ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection, rendering millions vulnerable to a host of diseases. In addition, the current food production and consumption practices are threatening the environment and the future of our planet. Food production is responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Global food waste accounts for 6.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, directly leading to climate change. The results of this can be seen in the form of hottest days in Kashmir with temperature rising to 34-36 degrees Celsius in the past few weeks. There is a need to focus on preventive healthcare through ensuring safe and healthy food for all people in an environmentally sustainable way.
Note: The views are personal based on local experience with fast foods.
The writer is Advisor to Government of Madhya Pradesh, Public Food Systems and Consumers Affairs, AIGGPA, Bhopal.