Strengthening food safety compliance at the workplace

food-safety-complianceTraditionally, food safety was not considered to be a priority for the masses in India, and products (as well as establishments serving them) were presumed to be safe. But, a rise in reports around adulteration of many varieties of commonly consumed food products led to increased regulatory scrutiny and public uproar, raising multiple questions. Consumer awareness rose dramatically and brands became cognizant of the repercussions of their products being tagged ‘unsafe and unfit’. Over time, there has also been a shift in public mindset to lead a ‘better and healthier life’, with discerning consumers going beyond just hygienic food to nutritious food.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), “measures to ensure a properly fed and healthy workforce are an indispensable element of social protection of workers.” The availability of safe and hygienic food at the workplace cafeteria or canteen is critical, as it could jeopardize the health of employees. However, it tends to be ranked low by management as well as employees, not realizing that it can improve employee productivity, which will ultimately enhance competitiveness.

Regulatory initiatives

In India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare passed the Food Safety Act, 2006 which established the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption. Recently, as part of the 10@10 Initiatives released at its 10th anniversary, the regulator has reinforced the important of safe and nutritious food at the workplace.

Today, the purview of FSSAI covers:

  • Food, beverages, nutraceuticals, food supplements, foods for special dietary uses and special medical purpose
  • Manufacturers, processors, re-packers, re-labellers, storage providers, transporters, distributors
  • Importers and exporters, wholesalers and retailers hotels, restaurants, canteens and catering services providers and E-retailers

Under the new initiatives, Safe and Nutritious Food at Work (SNF@Work) and Corporates for Safe and Nutritious Food (C4SNF), the regulator will release new guidelines to assure that the food being served at the workplace is safe for consumption. FSSAI has also made it mandatory for canteens, cafeterias and eating joints to obtain licenses and institute a well-established food safety and management system  to minimize any cases of food contamination. It has also issued booklets outlining safe and nutritious food for both employees and food handlers, so that FBOs and canteens make informed choices and exercise caution during food preparations. The regulator also mandates that at least one individual be trained in the capacity of a “Food Safety Supervisor” to oversee and ensure that safe food is being served in cafeterias. Corporates could look to employ only FSSAI-registered vendors and conduct monthly testing to generate reports. They could also have a nutrition expert to provide food safety and nutrition advice.

Food safety at the workplace

In many cases, monitoring of food products served at the workplace either through in-house canteens or outsourced by caterers becomes difficult for companies because of lack of resources and knowledge on food safety and hygiene principles. In order to minimize costs, augment profitability and cater to the different food tastes or cuisines at a discounted pricing structure, the essential elements of food safety could be often overlooked.

Caterers may face challenges around gaps in knowledge or awareness of food safety standards, overlook low hygiene among food handlers, sanitary controls such as regular pest control, periodic health checks of food handlers, regular hand washing and hand sanitizing mechanisms, etc. Although these may be deemed as simple and basic measures to maintain food safety, they could be often ignored or neglected. The cost incurred of such practices can be high, and more often than not, it tends to impact employees consuming such food products in canteens. In extreme cases, the repercussion of negligence by FBOs could lead to hazards such as food poisoning and possible hospitalization.

Implications of non-compliance 

The implications of non-compliance under the FSS Act, 2006 can result in hefty penalties, shut down of business, imprisonment, loss of consumer confidence and market reputation. In the workplace specifically, additional implications can be a high risk of food-borne illnesses and increased employee absenteeism from work, resulting in low productivity. Thus, corporates should mandate caterers and canteens to maintain high-quality standards when serving food. There should be adequate amount of training and knowledge sessions provided to food handlers in the canteen and cafeteria so that they all are compliant with the regulations.

Given these facts, food safety at the workplace has come to rank high on the radar for both the regulator and for the food catering industry.

Corporate responsibilities

It is the responsibility of the company to take measures for a healthy workforce, which is an indispensable element of social protection of workers. It has been observed that resources spent on building a healthy workforce will have high returns for the business.

Some of the leading practices in workplace cafeterias or canteens for food safety may include:

  • Employing FSSAI registered or licensed vendors
  • Contracting vendors having a well-established and operational Food Safety Management System plan
  • Conducting yearly audits of the premises
  • Having vendor compliance with FSS regulations and conditions of license
  • Provisioning nutritional menus for employees
  • Conducting training and awareness programs on food safety for employees

In conclusion, organizations that have cafeterias or canteen on their premises should adopt a proactive rather than a reactive approach. A robust food safety program, self-assessment checks and training programs will be instrumental to sustain high-quality food safety practices at the workplace.

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