A plan to transform the food environment in India that includes improving food safety and hygiene has been named as a winner of an international award.

Eat Right India was one of 10 programs recognized by the Rockefeller Foundation for plans to tackle food-related problems by 2050. The initiative was launched in mid-2018 and includes Eat safe, Eat healthy and Eat sustainable.

Three months were spent in the Foundation’s Food System Vision Prize program where the idea was refined. This ended in December when “Visionaries” were named and offered $200,000 to turn their idea into reality. An optional in-person workshop is planned for April 2021 but this could change due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The team is led by Pawan Agarwal, former CEO of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

Training and hygiene ratings for informal sector
Starting with improving hygiene and sanitation across the supply chain, FSSAI has trained and certified 300,000 food safety supervisors to evaluate food service establishments. Voluntary certification systems have been created for street food vendors and fruit and vegetable markets in half of the country’s 700 districts. The vision is to certify at least 50 percent of major food outlets and 25 percent of main workplaces, hospitals and jails with hygiene ratings.

The plan is to train and certify 1 million food handlers on safe practices. Health workers are being trained in 150,000 health and wellness centers to reach people at the grassroots level. Mobile food testing vans will also be placed in every district to check food quality.

Inoshi Sharma, director in the social and behavior change division at the FSSAI, said they heard about the prize through the website but never expected to get shortlisted.

“In India we have about 4.3 million registered food business operators in the organized sector. We also have a huge unorganized sector with standalone vendors selling their products on a daily basis to people,” she told Food Safety News.

“In the Eat Right initiative we created a program where street food vendors are identified in a municipality and provided basic food safety and hygiene practices so they can be followed because a lot of people are cooking fresh food. What they cook is not leftover, so the problem is more in terms of handwashing, washing utensils, clean and safe water and not leaving the food uncovered after cooking. It is going to take us time due to the vastness of the country and population. These are simple things but they have proven to be beneficial in the long term.”

Hygiene rating is a voluntary program businesses can take up where they do a self-assessment based on a prepared checklist and if they’ve got more than 3 stars they can display it.

“If they have a 3-star or higher rating I’m confident the food coming from there would be prepared in a safe and hygienic condition. That creates a lot of consumer confidence. The minimum you need to have is 3 stars, you can’t get 1 or 2, and 5 is the best,” said Sharma.

Role of e-commerce
India’s population is projected to reach about 1.64 billion by 2050. The country faces an economic burden of $15 billion annually because of foodborne diseases. It is estimated that a business as usual scenario would see foodborne illnesses rise from 100 million in 2011 to 150 to 177 million in 2030 with children younger than 5 being most affected.

Microbial contamination of milk, meat and fruit and vegetables, improper temperature control and adulteration are key issues in India, according to officials.

Sharma said e-commerce has taken off in the country, especially after COVID, and is well developed in about 100 cities.

“They are expected to have registration with the FSSAI. Some have their own hygiene protocols for the restaurants or the food handlers according to FSSAI standards. We’ve told the e-commerce platforms that when they are engaging with restaurants or people preparing food from home that they should make sure they are in turn registered with FSSAI and if they can do checks it helps us,” she said.

“Of the number of food businesses in the country it’s not always possible to reach out to people in their homes so it would be nice to make sure hygiene practices are followed by people coming on these platforms.”

Mapping out a plan
Sharma said the prize forced them to think about goals for the next three, 10 and 30 years.

“When it’s 10 and 30 years you can be ambitious but when it’s three you have to be practical. With COVID there were a lot of programs we had to postpone due to the lockdown but we could also think of some others,” she said.

“In terms of the three year goals, for any approach to be successful you can’t work by yourself because there is a lot of overlap with ministries also working with food, for instance, agriculture, environment, science and technology and processing. We held a meeting with these departments and came up with a roadmap for the next year where the concept of Eat Right is going to be incorporated into all these partners messages also.”

The second thing is using the COVID lockdown time to strengthen the stakeholder network because most conversations are via webinars or online meetings.

“This is the time to connect with like-minded people and tell them about Eat Right. When things go back to normal and open up then you can easily disseminate the information,” said Sharma.

“Third, we looked at each of our programs and made sure every step is clear and looked at information from the ground on difficulties in implementation to solve those issues. Fourth, we realized Eat Right is a concept that consumers were not aware of. A lot of people think if they had vegetables or fruits once in a while that’s enough, not realizing you need to have it 3 or 4 times a day. How do you reach out to people? How do you keep reinforcing the message all the time? How do I want information to be given? Those are things we are working on.

“What’s really important is to identify the most critical issue they are facing because there could be a disconnect between policymakers and what people want. You can’t just be the big brother, you have to think from the bottom up. How do you make sure people will keep pushing the program after the government changes? We’ve learned any program can be implemented with the support of like-minded people and a clear vision of what you want to achieve.”

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