Tara Rhine’s culinary skills power her two-month-old, food-based home business. From her home kitchen in Shenoy Nagar, Chennai, Tara serves a variety of Continental and Southeast Asian dishes such as chicken pot roast, chilli pork, vegetable au gratin, Vietnamese noodle soup and more.
It was all smooth going, until Chitra Chen, administrator of Homefood Network, a community of 25 home cooks that she belongs to, informed the group that all of them would have to apply for a registration/license from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to keep their businesses ticking.
“She gave us the information needed to apply for the registration. I went to the Corporation office on November 3 to apply for the permits. One of the officers came home the same day to check the premises. They had no complaints about it and now I am waiting for the papers to come through,” says Tara.
With the closure of restaurants and absence of domestic help, talented, enterprising home cooks across the country stepped in to fill the vacuum. Some did it as a hobby, some to earn extra cash. A few like Tara, had lost their jobs and turned entrepreneurs on the basis of their expertise in the kitchen. All over India, they flourished, serving signature dishes to appreciative customers.
However, many did not know that entrepreneurs in the food-based business must get a registration number or license (depending on their annual turnover) to serve and sell food. This law has been in force since August 5, 2011.
Fortunately for them, on account of the inconvenience caused by the lockdown, FSSAI relaxed the rules on March 31 this year, to allow food business operators (FBO) to operate temporarily without the FSSAI registration.
Vikas Talwar, Deputy Director (Regulatory Compliance), explains: “As per direction under Section 16 (5) of the FSSAI, food business operators were allowed to operate temporarily on basis of application for license/registration during the period of the lockdown. This was part of measures to ensure that the food chain was not interrupted.”
Once the country entered the exit lockdown stages, it became compulsory for home cooks to ensure that they had the required permits. “Once you start selling food, it is no longer a hobby. It affects people’s lives and health,” says Sarthak Gupta, founder of The Soul Spoon, a start-up that provides home bakers with a web-based interface in Delhi and the NCR area, so they can supply fresh desserts at customers’ doorsteps. The Soul Spoon, which was begun in July, takes care of the logistics, accounts and registrations. “Home-based food sellers require the FSSAI permits and Goods and Services Tax registration,” adds Sarthak.
Overnight, a number of consultants have sprung up to help home cooks, for a fee. Delhi-based Saundarya Srinivasan, and her mother, Lakshmi Srinivasan, who have been selling idli-sambar, paniyaram and meals on weekends for nearly a month, sought a consultant to help with the paper work.
Anita Dighe-Nair, who specialises in authentic Maharashtrian food in Thiruvananthapuram, on the other hand, applied for a registration online herself.
She says, “As soon I got to know about a FSSAI permit, I paid the fee of ₹208 for a two-year valid registration number and, within days, got my registration number,” she says. The online advertisement for her Deepavali box of Maharhtrian sweets and savouries shows off the FSSAI registration number.
Nevertheless, the going has not been smooth for many of the home cooks. “We were ignorant about the need for a license or registration with the FSSAI. Heeding the call of the Prime Minister to be atma nirbhar (self-reliant), we began a small enterprise selling home-cooked food. The necessity of FSSAI permits sent many of us into a tizzy,” says Saundarya.
A race for permits
In Thiruvananthapuram alone, 2,300 applications were filed to get the necessary permits to run the food units, many of which had sprung up during the lockdown.
Even as Soundarya points out that she is still waiting for her registration number, official sources assert that there is no need for any kind of panic: the deadline to secure the mandatory permissions from the FSSAI is December 31, 2020.
They add that the since the portal of the FSSAI was being updated, applicants may have experienced difficulties. “All that has been sorted out. All registrations or licenses are to be obtained only online,” says Vikas, explaining that these registrations and licenses are issued by the district office of the Food Safety Department.
Anita points out that since she cooks for her family in the same kitchen and has a toddler at home, she ensures that her house and kitchen are spick and span.
Meanwhile, Tara has more concerns, “Many home-cooks maintain clean kitchens and the food is hygienically prepared. But I can’t help wondering about hawkers who come on bikes and sell cooked food. How is the Corporation going to ensure that the food is hygienically prepared and served? It does not make sense to insist on home cooks alone applying for registration and license.”
Saundarya adds, “It has been a difficult period. A number of people, for instance those in many apartments and societies, are relying on the food business to pay their rent and put food on the table. While it is true that clean and hygienic premises are a must for home cooks, I feel the authorities must empathise with their plight and educate them before going ahead with any kind of fines.”
Despite the flurry of concern, what is important now is understanding the rules. “Home cooks only need a registration number if their turnover is likely to be below ₹12 lakh. Licenses are for those who do business above that amount. So, if they applied for the required registration/license, no one is going to disturb them till December 31,” says Vikas, adding, “They can carry on their business without any apprehension.”
With inputs from Nahla Nainar