“I used to crave street food as a teenager. I frequently had lunches and dinners from roadside vendors for more than 5 years,” said Shruti, a resident of KK Nagar. A few years ago she suffered from food poisoning due to one such meal and had to miss her college semester exams. “That was when it hit me how unhealthy street food in Chennai could be.”
How does Chennai’s street food scene fare on food safety and hygiene? What should you look out for the next time you decide to treat yourself to some scrumptious roadside chaat or bajjis on the beach?
Feedback from foodies
“I am not going to say every street food joint in Chennai is completely hygienic. I’ve found most spots to be moderately hygienic,” said Dikshita Jain, a food blogger from Sowcarpet, who runs a page on Instagram.
Mahizhan Sivakumar has been eating street food for over five to six years in Chennai. “If I could rate roadside food, I would give a 6 on 10 for cleanliness and 5 on 10 for taste,” he said.
Post COVID-19, many street vendors have improved on cleanliness while preparing and serving food, according to Mahizhan.
“People are hesitant to eat from roadside shops nowadays, thanks to the pandemic. So, many small food shop owners have to up their hygiene game to get back into business,” said Shruti.
“Even though some food joints have started cooking within a shield of glass on their carts or stall, some shops cook facing dusty roads, making the food unsafe to consume,” said Mahizhan.
“In areas with more footfall, the quality and the taste of food is better than the others. The price of food in such areas is also relatively higher. However, if we are taking areas near transit points like bus stops and local train stations, the footfall is more fluid and temporary there. We can see street foods of low quality. This is because the latter does not depend on a loyal customer base. They will always do business with a floating population who are travelling and hungry,” said Mahizhan.
Recently, citizens found that food stalls near Koyambedu bus terminus also serve unsafe and unclean food.
A month ago, Shruti came across a Chinese street food joint near a local train station, where she spotted the cook prepping cabbage without washing his hands after having just cleaned some dirty dishes.
“People who are travelling are in a hurry to not miss their train or bus. Thus, they buy food from these unclean street food joints out of convenience. Apart from the transit points, I have also spotted unclean street food in commercial hubs where there is a temporary, but heavy footfall, like in T Nagar, Parrys,” said Shruti.
Some customers that we spoke to also say that traditional food joints like idly shops that have been in business for years are crowded due to their quality and affordability of food. Items such as idlies, which are steamed are considered safer as they do not require the use of much oil.
Read more: ‘Smart’ T Nagar among top five polluted neighbourhoods in Chennai: Report
Health issues due to frequent consumption of street food
Reusing oil multiple times is an important issue when it comes to street food health standards. “Unsaturated fat of oil becomes saturated fat when the oil reaches its smoking point, which is not good for your health. Because of this, there is a chance of carcinogenesis,” said SV Roshni, a dietician.
A CAG report found that 1 in 10 street vendors in Tamil Nadu reuse cooking oil. A 2019 study by Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) also found that only 21% of vendors do not reuse oil in Chennai.
“To check if the oil is being reheated to make your food, you can check the viscosity and colour of the oil,” said Roshni. Reused oil has a darker shade and an increased viscosity or thickness. “You can see the fried items turning blacker.”
Palm oil is the cheapest cooking oil used by street vendors. According to the CAG report, 76.2% of people use palm oil. As of last year, its price was Rs. 115/litre. Many tend to use and reuse it due to its affordability. However, research states that palm oil can increase heart disease, cholesterol and appetite. Additionally, many people who eat street food are susceptible to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
“GERD is heartburn due to excessive spice, oil and food colours. This is the immediate effect of consuming street food. In long term, obesity, cardiovascular disorders, diabetes and other complications can arise,” said Roshni.
“The smoking point of palm oil is low. Therefore, the conversion of unsaturated fats to saturated fats is quicker, making it more hazardous,” says Roshni. “When you see a tea stall where the oil is always hot to fry fritters, the oil would have surpassed the smoking point earlier itself leading to GERD.” said Roshni.
“Vendors serving non-vegetarian food can also grossly violate safety norms. We never know where they are sourcing the meat from, whether the meat is what they claim it to be, and how they are prepping it. Also, storage of meat becomes an issue,” said Roshni. Especially since most street food vendors in Chennai do not have refrigerators to store raw meat. The VIT study also found that no street vendor surveyed in Chennai used a refrigerator for storage, and raw meat stored at room temperature can be unsafe.
“Keeping cooked and uncooked meat next to each other can lead to the spread of harmful bacteria like salmonella. In cases of such food contamination, it can lead to diarrhoea,” said Roshni.
“Hot food is preferable to eat over cold food, especially when it comes to street food.The human body digests hot foods faster than cold foods,” said Dr Petta Radhakrishnan, a gastrointestinal surgeon.
“If the colour of foods looks bright and artificial, we can say that the vendor has added artificial colours. These colours are carcinogenic,” said AG Saranya, MD of Parikshan, a food safety organisation.
Rules of street food vending in Chennai
Registration with the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) is mandatory to sell street food in Chennai.
“Four years ago, people from the Corporation came and initiated the process. They asked me to register my shop by giving address proof in the ward councillor’s office,” said a street food vendor who was listed on the GCC website.
The yearly vending fee ranges from Rs. 250-1500, depending on size and other factors, according to the Tamil Nadu Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood, Regulation of Street Vending and Licensing) Scheme, 2015.
With GCC categorising vending and non-vending zones in the city, vendors with corporation certificates will be allowed to sell in the vending zones. The newer and uncertified shops would be monitored.
It is also compulsory for the vendor to register with the Tamil Nadu Food Safety and Drug Administration Department, which comes under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The fee for registration is Rs. 100 for petty food businesses or street eateries with an annual income less than 12 lakhs.
Only if the street food shops comply with Part 3 of Section 4 of Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses), Regulations 2011, will the business be awarded an FSSAI registration.
Every year, the license can be renewed by payment of the same amount. If a food vendor is found without an FSSAI registration, then a penalty of up to Rs. 5 lakhs can be levied along with six months of imprisonment.
Street food vendors must also display their FSSAI license prominently at the place of vending.
Read more: Dry taps, blocked sewers, garbage mess and more: Koyambedu market cries out for better infrastructure
Monitoring of street food stalls and carts
There are 19 food safety officers in the Chennai district, as of 2020, for different areas, who are part of the Department of Food Safety and Drug Administration of the Tamil Nadu government. They monitor the food safety standards of street food too. The respective food safety officers must conduct yearly inspections of registered food businesses in their areas, as per the FSSAI rules.
“Sometimes we even inspect once in three months or six months too, and do not wait for a year,” said a food safety officer.
Chennai Corporation confirmed that they do not conduct safety and hygiene raids of street food vendors.
FSSAI has roped in third-party food safety organisations to audit shops which use dairy and meat products to reduce the burden on the food safety department. In July 2021, the food safety department, along with Parikshan, audited 40 street food outlets in Egmore. They found that all of them had the FSSAI registration. However, some of them had damaged carts, and could not afford the repair, especially due to losses incurred in the pandemic.
If the food served at the street food stalls or carts does not meet the FSSAI standards, the penalty can go up to Rs. 25,000 for street food vendors. If the petty food business owner does not follow the regulations or orders laid by the food safety officers, then a penalty of a maximum of Rs. 2 lakhs can be levied, according to Food Safety and Standard Rules, 2011.
“There are not enough inspections from the government side to monitor the quality of street food in Chennai,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan.
Street food vendors struggle to make ends meet
“Every day I go to Koyambedu to buy groceries and ingredients to use for that day for Rs. 4000-5000. Even if I buy from wholesale shops in bulk, the prices are high to manage expenses”, said Ajay*, a street food vendor who opened his street food cart in early August.
“I know vendors who buy used oil at even cheaper prices because they cannot afford fresh oil. However, I used to be dependent on street food when I was younger, and I know that I cannot give lower-quality food to my customers. Even if I can manage to push out lesser quantity, I try hard to not give up on quality,” said Ajay.
He makes Rs. 1000 as profit/day and reinvests the money to buy raw materials. He hopes to register his outlet with the Chennai Corporation in the latest round of enumerations. But, he is unaware of the requirement of getting his food stall licensed and registered with FSSAI.
Mouli* is a street vendor who has been selling sandwiches for the past five years. “Pre-pandemic, I used to get unbranded ingredients and used tap water, because it was cheaper. When my own family fell ill during the pandemic, I thought that I should change my ways. In the name of cheap raw materials, I cannot play with the health of people. Now, I use only branded ingredients. Even if the profit is less, I am getting a steady income, and developing a loyal customer base”, he said.
Mouli too does not have an FSSAI license.
“To cater to small-scale vendors being able to afford and use branded ingredients, the government can set up a hub to sell ingredients at subsidised prices. It will not be too much of a loss because these vendors will be buying in bulk. The system can be similar to ration shops, but for commercial small-scale vendors,” said Roshni.
Recommendations for improving safety of street food
Improving cleanliness: “If the vendors cannot afford gloves, they can keep different cloth bits for cleaning different things on their counter,” said Dikshita.
Ajay said that he has reused worn-out sarees of his mother, for this purpose.
Using stored water: “Since there is no flowing water for street food vendors to use, many use buckets of water. We recommended two buckets of water- one with normal water, and the other with a soap solution for washing dishes properly. Concentrated soap solutions are available in Parrys for very cheap prices,” said Praveen Andrews from Parikshan.
“We have trained street vendors on the beaches to use the seawater to clean their dishes, because of its salt content. They need not spend much on soap water,” said Saranya.
Reusing oil: “If the vendors want to finish the oil after using it once, then they can garnish or make tadka with it, which will cause less harm than frying in used oil,” said Roshni.
Apart from this, reused oil can be given to make biodiesel. Chennai-based companies like Uranus Oil Corporation buy used cooking oil for Rs. 35/kg. If a vendor uses more than 50 litres of cooking oil, they can sell it to the FSSAI too. Experts suggest that this FSSAI initiative must include even small-scale vendors.
Reading labels: “Even while buying branded ingredients, the vendors must know how to read labels to veer away from harmful substances,” said the food safety experts from Parikshan. “FSSAI label, expiry date, manufacturing date, vegetarian and non-vegetarian labels, and storage instructions must be carefully checked.”
Focusing on personal hygiene: “The street vendors must ensure personal hygiene and also avoid work on days when they are unwell. This is the first step to ensure food safety in roadside eateries,” said Saranya.
The street food carts and stalls provide a vital service in supplying affordable food to many. With better sensitisation of vendors, avenues for procurement of quality ingredients and vigilance on the part of customers and authorities, the quality and standard of street food in the city can be improved.
*names changed on request
Complaints regarding food safety violations can be made via the Food Safety Connect app of FSSAI or through the Food Safety Helpline at 9444042322