The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food services and systems worldwide have been unprecedented.  No aspect of food systems has been left unaffected, be it in a surge of demand for a specific service or product or new and unexpected challenges in business models and operations. While the COVID-19 induced lockdown devastated many industries and sectors, it did benefit a few – like the home-chefs, who started the sale of homemade biriyanis, parathas, cakes, cookies, to name a few, through social media and tie up with other food delivery networks. As the pandemic has raised safety and hygiene concerns for consumers, people chose homemade food over restaurants. But do the same rules of registration, safety & standards that are applicable to restaurants also apply to these home-chefs? This article aims to summarise the existing rules relating to the same.

The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (“FSSA”) consolidates the laws relating to food and has established the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (“FSSAI”) for regulating science based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption and for matters connected therewith.

As per the FSSA, no person shall commence or carry on any food business except under a license. While the FSSA grants exemption from procuring such license to a ‘petty manufacturer’ who himself manufactures or sells any article of food or a petty retailer, hawker, itinerant vendor or a temporary stall holder or small scale or cottage or such other industries relating to food business or tiny food business operator, however, they are mandatorily required to register themselves with the registering authority.

The Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011(“Regulations”) define a ‘Petty Manufacturer’ as someone who: (a) manufactures or sells any article of food himself or a petty retailer, hawker, itinerant vendor or temporary stall holder, or distributes foods including in any religious or social gathering except a caterer; or (b) such other food businesses including small scale or cottage or such other industries relating to food business or tiny food businesses with an annual turnover not exceeding Rs 12 lakhs and/or whose (i) production capacity of food (other than milk and milk products and meat and meat products) does not exceed 100 kg/ltr per day; or (ii) procurement or handling and collection of milk is up to 500 litres of milk per day; or (iii) slaughtering capacity is 2 large animals or 10 small animals or 50 poultry birds per day or less.

Therefore, those with an annual turnover below Rs. 12 lakhs need to get registered mandatorily while those above the turnover threshold are also required to get a license. The FSSA has also prescribed that if any person or food business operator, himself or by any person on his behalf who is required to obtain license, manufactures, sells, stores or distributes or imports any article of food without license, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months and also with a fine which may extend to Rs. 5 lakhs.

The FSSA contains the application forms for registration/license, as the case may be. Such applications need to be made to the designated officers prescribed under the FSSA. The designated officer has the power to either grant the license or reject it, however, an opportunity of being heard is given to the applicant. Further, the FSSA has also prescribed a maximum period of 2 months within which the license must be issued. If a license is not issued within 2 months or his application is not rejected, the applicant may start his food business and in such a case, the designated officer shall not refuse to issue a license, but may issue an improvement notice under the FSSA.

Another important fact for consideration applies in case if the food articles are manufactured, sold, stored or exhibited for sale at different premises situated in more than one area, in which case, separate applications are required to be made and separate licenses will be issued in respect of such premises not falling within the same area.

A registration or license unless suspended or cancelled earlier, remains in force for a period of 1 to 5 years as chosen by the applicant, from the date of issue of registration or license, provided that if a renewal application is made before the expiry of the validity period of the license, the license remains in force until orders are passed on the application.

While the FSSA and the rules thereunder have been in existence for more than a decade, the registration requirement garnered attention recently in wake of the COVID – 19 which saw a stark rise in the number of home chefs, however, there was not a simultaneous increase in registrations under the FSSA. Every home chef and every other manufacturer who falls under the aegis of the FSSA, must obtain registration in order to avoid penalty attached to non-compliance with the mandate. Such registered manufacturers are also required to follow basic hygiene and safety requirements provided in the Regulations and to provide a self-attested declaration of adherence to such requirements.