In the bustling Bada Danda area of Puri, on the road leading to the Jagannath temple, Food Safety Officer Birendra Kumar Mahanta, 56, is questioning a dahi vada-aloo dum seller. “Do you use artificial colour? And have you mixed halogen tablets in your water?” Mahanta asks the young man, one of the many fast-food vendors lined up on either side of Grand Road.
The vendor, Rabindra Sahu, quickly offers Mahanta a dahi vada and says he has “run out” of the tablets (meant to purify water). Mahanta gives him a stern warning and asks him to register for a food safety licence by paying Rs 100.
It’s a little over noon. The 56-year-old geology post-graduate from Utkal University in Bhubaneswar, accompanied by five other food safety officers, is walking around the Bada Danda area checking the quality of food being sold by fast food vendors, fruit-sellers and restaurants. While Mahanta has been in Puri since April — he was transferred from Balasore as food safety officer — the other five officers have been deputed from different districts of the state to help him since this is the busiest time in the year for food inspectors in Puri.
The annual Jagannath Rath Yatra, which begins in little over a month, sees lakhs of pilgrims descend on Puri to witness three massive chariots of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra being taken out in a procession. That means brisk business for vendors and extra work for food inspectors. This year is even tougher. This is the year of Nabakalebara, when close to 12-15 lakh pilgrims are expected to crowd the temple town to see the reincarnation of the three Gods.
Orissa has just 26 food safety officers against the 314 mandated under the Food Safety Act. The staff crunch is only the beginning of their problems, says Mahanta. The visiting team of food inspectors hasn’t been sanctioned accommodation yet and there’s no certainty on the allotted government vehicle. “For Nabakalebara and Rath Yatra, we need at least 10 food safety officers. We also need at least two dedicated vehicles to take us around. Today, we should have started around 10.30-11 am, but finally started at noon, since the vehicle didn’t turn up,” says Mahanta.
But despite “little support from the government”, Mahanta claims his team has inspected 543 shops this month and destroyed 5.33 quintals of contaminated and stale food.
Mahanta is surprised at the attention their job has got after the Maggi controversy. “No one noticed our work till the Maggi incident. Though we also seize Maggi packets, our focus remains mostly on roadside vendors,” says Mahanta.
The next stop is a khaja vendor’s stall. As flies hover around a big mound of khaja, a popular sweet that is offered to Lord Jagannath every day, Mahanta and his team member Paramananda Singh, 57, reprimand the vendor, “Either throw this into the dustbin or cover it with a plastic net.”
The vendor, Bidyadhar Sahoo, tries to explain, but an angry Mahanta throws a few sweets off the plate. “Next time I will come with the magistrate and impose a penalty.” The vendor quickly wraps the sweets in a plastic bag and leaves the spot. “The maximum penalty that we can impose on the vendors is Rs 200. But the fine has helped bring a change,” says Mahanta.
One of the officers, Pratiskhya Dasmohapatra, 30, now walks towards a sherbet stall that has scores of bottles with a yellow liquid. Pratiskhya warns the vendor and empties the contents of the bottles immediately. She, along with two other woman officers, now moves to inspect a small eatery that is serving a curry that’s “blood red”. “How can you put so much colour in a curry?” Pratishkhya lashes out at the owner.
It’s just an hour after noon and the officers have managed to check 30 food stalls. Given the recent spotlight on their job, Mahanta insists that without a police team accompanying them, it is difficult to force the eateries to submit their food for inspection.
The team now plans a raid on a multi-cuisine restaurant. The six-member team storms into the eatery and goes straight to the kitchen. Two containers of an orange-coloured gravy are emptied. After sustained questioning, the officers realise the owner does not have a food licence either. They let him off with a warning, asking him to get his licence in a week.
It’s 2:20 pm by now and time for lunch, so the team decides to call it a day. “We would have carried on with the inspection after lunch, but my team members are yet to get official accommodation,” says Mahanta as he joins the rest of the team for a meal.