The coronavirus pandemic has made everyone sit up and take more notice of hygiene and safety practices. Theoretically, there may not be a vast difference between standards on cruise ships and in restaurants across India, but the reality is often quite stark.
Restaurants and food service outlets in India come under the purview of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare established only in 2011. Since that time, it has been unable to crack down sufficiently on hygiene and safety lapses.
Cruise ship companies on the other hand are governed by strict maritime law. Many leave from US and European ports where hygiene and safety laws have been quite strict for decades.
A large part of the restaurant and food service industry in India is unorganised – around 65-70 per cent according to CARE Ratings. This sector consists of roadside vendors, food carts, street stalls, small-time restaurants and dhabas which often hire unskilled workers who are pre-dominantly unaware of the strict hygiene rules that ought to govern processing and serving food.
For cruise companies, at least basic educational qualifications are required, with additional experience, depending on the level at which a cruise ship chef is hired. Companies also include orientation sessions for new staff and frequent refresher courses to ensure everyone is aware of the most recent hygiene and safety regulations.
The industry in India is also riddled with discrepancies in the supply chain. According to a recent report in The Hindu, India has the world’s largest livestock population, is the largest producer of buffalo meat and produces about 100 billion eggs annually. But the conditions under which a significant domestic portion of these finally reach consumers – including many restaurants and food service outlets – are dubious at best.
A simple visit to the local wet markets will show the condition of the slaughterhouses and meat vendors. The butchers themselves rarely wear gloves or proper shoes, and it is not common to see a washbasin in every shop. The eggs one buys at a local store are often tainted with dirt and droppings. Goa itself was embroiled in a controversy last year over the alleged presence of formalin in fish, a toxic chemical used to delay decay.
It is possible that the way animals and poultry are reared for meat in many parts of India do not follow the welfare standards suggested by the FSSAI and are at risk of passing on infections due to poor immune systems.
Adulteration of food has also not been curtailed. Only last month, the Dairy Reporter suggested a five per cent increase in adulteration of milk in Maharashtra alone, with 85 per cent of the 413 samples collected found to be tainted, including 73 samples from branded companies.
This suggested that the regulatory bodies are not looking into the situations well enough, nor taking appropriate action against offenders.
Cruise ship companies, on the other hand, buy much of their stock from large vendors who are under threat of losing a significant chunk of business if it is discovered that they are supplying low quality, unhygienically processed or stored produce.
Celebrity Cruises, for example, was supplied by The Apollo Group that even ages beef in Miami under strict health and safety conditions before sending it to vessels around the world. In addition, surprise inspections are held regularly on every cruise vessel by organisations like the Center for Disease Control, checking everything from cleanliness and sanitation to dress codes, storage temperatures of dishes and fresh produce, labelling, and even how cleaning liquids are stocked. Cruise ship vessels that do not rack up scores good enough are not permitted from plying until they pass the follow-up inspection.
Additionally, payments at land-based restaurants and quick service enterprises in India are often done in cash, which itself can be a carrier of germs. Generally, only clients at high-end restaurants use cards for convenience.
On cruise ships, the norm is contactless payments through a cruise card which works as the guests’ key card, credit card and ID. A major chunk of payment for the cruise happens online, before the trip. Any additional expenses on board are added to the card when swiped and a final bill is cleared once at the end.
However, since the coronavirus outbreak, standards of hygiene are being scrutinised the world over, and only those food service outlets that meet regulations are allowed to operate. In such cases, cruise ship chefs are at a distinct advantage for their knowledge of hygiene and safety rules in food processing and service.