It took the death by food poisoning of a 21-year-old to shake Kerala's health authorities out of their slumber on the lack of basic hygiene in many eateries across the state. In the past few days, some 50 establishments of varying sizes have been shut across the state for not following minimum standards.
All the 20,000 eateries across the state were shut Saturday to protest the health department's raids.
On July 10, 21-year-old Sachin Mathew, a hotel management graduate, bought three 'shawarmas' from a restaurant located close to the Congress party headquarters here before boarding a bus for Bangalore.
En route to Bangalore that night, he rang up his mother and said he was unwell. From the next day on there was no contact with the parents and on July 14 they got a call from a lodge in Bangalore where he was staying that their son had died.
Also on July 10, the son of thespian Thilakan and his family also had 'shawarmas' from the same restaurant and they too fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital.
A day later the health authorities sealed the restaurant.
The health authorities in Kochi have banned the sale of shawarmas for a week.
Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association president Sudheesh Kumar told IANS that sales in hotels have dropped following the incident. The Association had called Saturday's stir.
"To the best of my knowledge this is the first incident where a life has been lost due to food poisoning. We have begun a massive awareness drive among our members on the do's and don'ts. At this point of time we do not wish to blame anyone," said Kumar, who runs a plush seaside resort overlooking the Kovalam beach.
The Food Safety Department (FSD) of the state government has also opened a helpline and responses have started pouring in from the general public pointing to improper hygiene being maintained at eateries.
The authorities have asked the public to ensure that they keep the copy of the bill from the establishment where they ate as this would be crucial in case compensation was sought.
"The raids began from Tuesday and by now we have checked 511 eateries and have served improvement notices to 133. These notices are in fact warning signals to the hotel owners that they have to improve their hygiene and, if not, they will be closed down permanently," said a FSD official.
Thiruvananthapuram Mayor K. Chandrika pointed out that following the implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act last August, the civic body had lost to the state government the powers to rein in erring eateries.
"With this new law, the onus is on the state government and they have to do what has to be done. There is no point in blaming the corporation," Chandrika, who belongs to the CPI-M, said.
Kerala assembly Speaker G. Karthikeyan, meanwhile, has asked the state government to find out if the responsible officials are doing their job.
(Sanu George can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)