Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Street Food and the Law 02: Standards - I


I noted in the previous post that several justifications have been cited for prohibiting cooking on the streets. One that has recently gained legitimacy rests on grounds of hygiene and the health hazards it poses for those eating it.

This raises the question, is cooking on the streets indeed so harmful to the consumer? And is pre-cooked food really the answer? In this post I examine what health and food safety bodies have to say on the matter.

International Standards

It is reassuring to know that international bodies accept street food to be an inescapable reality of urban life, especially in less affluent nations. They also recognise its beneficent consequences. As the FAO notes on its website:
Besides being cheap and convenient, street foods can also be nutritious. A study in Calcutta found that an average 1 000 calorie meal contained about 30 grams of protein, 15 grams of fat and 180 grams of carbohydrates. And at an average cost of about five Indian rupees, street food is probably the least expensive means of obtaining a nutritionally balanced meal outside the home, according to the study.
Considerations such as these have encouraged the bodies to take a stand that is both mature and practical. Rather than calling for its prohibition, they have instead chosen to draft guidelines to ensure conformity with basic food safety requirements.

Codex Alimentarius

In 1963, the FAO and WHO jointly created the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) to 'develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme.' Among the food safety standards that the Commission formulated, two pertain to street food.

'Code of Hygienic Practice for the Preparation and Sale of Street Foods (Regional Code: Latin America and the Caribbean)' dates back to 1997, and was revised in 2001.
(It may noted that some confusion exists about its original date of adoption. While the parent webpage lists the date as 1995, the document itself bears the date 1997.) The second, titled 'Revised Regional Guidelines for the Design of Control Measures for Street-Vended Foods in Africa', was adopted originally in 1997 and redrafted in 1999. For the sake of convenience, we shall refer them to the 1997 and 1999 Codes respectively.

Section 6.2 of the 1997 Code specifies requirements for food preparation. Guideline 6.2.3 is directly relevant to us, and is reproduced verbatim:
6.2.3 The time between preparation and consumption of foods should be as follows: - Up to 6 hours when foods are kept at a temperature above 60°C. - Up to one day when foods are kept at a maximum temperature of 5°C. - Reheat only once refrigerated food completely to a temperature of 70°C, immediately before consumption.
Note HA on the same page [page 7] states:
Microorganisms are sensitive to heat to a degree depending on biological type and on form and duration of exposure at detrimental temperatures. However, cooking in kitchens is not sufficient to sterilize foods. The remaining bacteria can multiply exponentially at room temperature and their final number will depend on the time of exposure at inadequate temperature.
(I mention in passing that in the original document, Note HA is produced entirely in capital letters!)

Similarly, Section 8 ('Protection and Sale of Foods') contains the following:
8.2.3 - The food and beverages displayed for sale should be well protected and kept at an appropriate temperature. - When hot foods have been chilled, reheating must be at above 70°C.

From the foregoing, we may glean the following points:
  • Cooked food must not under any circumstances be kept at room temperature;
  • The appropriate temperature for storing cooked food is either less than 5°C or more than 60°C;
  • If food meant to be had hot is kept refrigerated, it should be heated to above 70°C before being served.
The 1999 Code is much more comprehensively drafted, and genreally entails more strnigent standards. For instances, it addresses in considerable detail issues like the location, design, construction, customer facilities and so on of street food centres, [Section VI (sic IV), p. 11-14] issues that the 1997 Code does not mention. Dwelling on these matters poses a pleasant temptation, but is not really relevant to the present topic.

In respect of storage temperatures, the Code marginally relaxes standards for cold foods. The bar for hot foods remains the same. Section 5.3 contains [at p. 16] the following:
Ready-to-eat foods intended for continuous serving should be protected from environmental contamination and kept at the following holding temperatures:

a) for food served hot......60°C or above;
b) for food served cold......7°C or below;
c) for food served frozen..–18°C or below.
[Continued in Part II]


DD said...

nice post. leave aside poor nations - in entire new york city, i find the lamb+rice combo available on lex and 53rd to be one of the better quality food. also, it is damn cheap.

Anonymous said...

This is plain bad news. One of the best things about our trips back home is (or should we say, was) street food. All I can say is, it's one thing to ensure safety standards, and completely another to close the whole business down.