Food poisoning @ IITB
The previous version of this article was incomplete and did not present a holistic view. We have now incorporated additional information into this report and taken down some unsubstantiated views with the aim of making it a more comprehensive read. We sincerely apologise for any lapses on our part.
Reporters: Anubhav Mangal, Anupam Chatterjee, Archana Das, Rahul Pramod, Sibaprasad Mohanty, Sourabh Biswas
Around 300 students from H12, 13 and 14 reportedly fell sick after consuming the Chinese dinner at the hostel mess on Sunday, September 25 out of which around 16 were hospitalised. A brief look into the history of H12/13 messes as provided to us by Prof. Anindya Dutta (HCU Chairman):
H12/13 mess started in 2003, with ‘Sai Kripa’ (Gul Mohar) as the caterer. The mess had to be shut down after a 1.5 years, due to labour problems. The mess restarted after three months with ‘Vihar Aahar’ of Ahmedabad. They provided service till 2006. It was terrible. So their contract was not renewed. Then, fresh bids were sought and ‘Aditya Caterers’ came in. In 2009, they were replaced by ‘Annapurna Caterers’, as students found some unauthorized brands preserved in the store. The caterers claimed that these brands were for the canteen and not the mess. The service of Annapurna was found to be unsatisfactory by the students. So, their contract was terminated and Shakti Kitchen came in July 2010. They quit in two months and then, Aditya caterers came back, as they were the next lowest bidders.
The tendering process we have followed so far is as follows: Technical and commercial bids are invited through newspaper advertisements. On basis of the technical bids and most importantly, feedback from groups of students who visit establishments by the bidders, a short list is prepared and the lowest bidder among these shortlisted bidders is awarded the contract. The Faculty/ staff members of the committee play an advisory role, but the students always have the last word. For example, in 2009, the students decided to leave Sai Kripa out of the shortlist, against the advice of Dean (SA) and HCU Chair. They opened the bid of Annapurna Caterers, who eventually got the contract, once again against the advice of Dean (SA) and HCU Chair. In summer this year, Hostel 10 did not open the bid of ‘Supercare’, the then caterers, against the advice of HCU chair, but based on the feedback from a referendum.
It should be clarified here that last year, Aditya caterers were included in the process only after a referendum among the residents of Hostels 12 and 13 (14 was not occupied at that time), conducted by the students, came out in favour of opening their commercial bid.
To conclude, the appointment of caterers, even for a short term, is through a well chalked out process. There is no scope to employ the service of a caterer on the basis of personal experience or preference.
We questioned the G.Secs of Hostel 12 (Chandramohan) and 13 (Prasoon Thapliyal) a few days after this incident unfolded.
1. Did you see this incident coming?
Hostel 12 Gsec: I agree that the mess food was deteriorating for last few months and this was raised in the council meet several times. Finally we decided that the caterer should be given time till December to improve the food quality, failing which he will be removed. Management of the workers was not proper and sometimes there weren’t enough workers to prepare and serve the food. They did not even wear caps and gloves during cooking. But given the infrastructure available it’s not fair on our part to blame the caterer alone.
Hostel 13 Gsec: There were general issues with the caterer but nothing of such magnitude was expected. There was nothing like long spells of severe unhygienic conditions.
2. What happened that day?
Hostel 13 Gsec: We received a call on Monday morning from IIT Hospital stating that 4-6 people have been admitted complaining of stomach disorders. By evening there were more such complaints in the wings. Around 500 people gathered after we made an announcement through the PA system. We immediately arranged for 2 tum-tums and the institute ambulance. A medical team then arrived on Tuesday morning to treat students in the hostels.
Hostel 12 Gsec: The wardens were called and they took the decision that students should be sent to the hospital for check up as it would be difficult if someone falls sick late in the night. After preliminary treatment doctors suggested that hot water with lemon, salt and some minerals (read ORS) to be given to all the patients which was arranged in the hostel mess at night. Next day doctors were called in the H-12 warden’s office and all those who still had some problems were treated there.
3. What happened in the immediate aftermath?
Hostel 13 Gsec: The FDA investigations went on quite seriously. The Deputy Director, HCU Chairman, Wardens, GSHA, Hostel GSec’s and Mess Council were all present until 5 am in the Wednesday morning. They verified the tender documentation, contractor’s license; brands used in the mess and collected samples of the raw material used during the preparation of Sunday’s dinner.
4. Why do you think this incident happened?
Hostel 13 Gsec: Most likely food poisoning. A team from Eureka Forbes conducted thorough check ups of all the water coolers in the hostels and ruled out water contamination.
5. Can you elaborate on the kind of infrastructural problems that you are facing?
Hostel 13 Gsec: The rate of repair and renovation has been very pathetic. The mess has a severe water seepage problem from the adjacent Lake since it is below the water level. If a worker switches on an exhaust fan, water cooler is powered off. Huge money (about Rs. 1 crore) was spent purchasing the kitchen equipment, only to make fundamental mistakes. The burners here are about 4 feet high. How can a worker cook properly on a vessel placed above it?
All the three GSec’s before me took the matters to the institute authorities, only to a get lacklustre response, particularly from the Estate Office which takes forever to initiate a process. Also, there is seepage through the side walls during rains. After 3 years of serious efforts, water-proof concreting was done to walls. No tiles have been installed after concreting the walls; mind you they can restrict water leakage to an extent.
Hostel 12 GSec: During monsoon season there is water logging in the lower deck of the mess which spreads to the kitchen, store room and the workers rest rooms. The water proofing of the roof is going on for last 4 years and still there is leakage. The mess and kitchen have a capacity of 1200 yet 2000 people eat there. Expansion of kitchen was proposed but it has not been done yet.
Rodents and insects come in through cracks and holes in the walls. And treating them with pesticides doesn’t help. Also there is a problem with the exhaust. It is difficult to sit in the night canteen when its crowded.
6. What is the current situation?
Hostel 13 Gsec: The present mess will be functional until a new caterer has been decided. Students are ready to adjust until then. They have also been offered a 100% rebate if they do not wish to eat here. We have closed the night canteen temporarily.
7. What is your current course of action?
Hostel 13 Gsec: The present caterer will be sacked and most likely will be blacklisted from bidding in any of the IIT’s. We are yet to decide on the fine to be imposed. We hope that the institute authorities wake up after such a serious incident. The Student council will ensure thorough calculations are done (with the help of a food consultant) about the daily mess basic pay to eliminate the case, such as the IIT Madras mess contractor who had intentionally quoted a low price to acquire the mess contract.
Hostel 12 Gsec: We’ll be floating the tender for a new caterer. The expansion of kitchen will be undertaken. The mess will be closed for two days (15-16th October) to create a wall in the kitchen to guard the kitchen from construction work. There were some electrical problems that have been taken care off. We have placed a list of what needs to be done before the HCU and the Deans. A detailed report of the demands and outcome will be out by Monday.
GSHA (Monty) Speaks:
Nearly a week later, we questioned Monty regarding several aspects which were still left unanswered. Here is what he had to say.
1. What is the present situation of H12,13,14 mess?
The future kitchen in H12, 13, 14 mess is still incomplete. The completion of future kitchen project has been accelerated to facilitate 2000 people eating. A committee has been formed by the Director including students which will present a report in next 15 days. A separate mess is the best solution and we are recommending this solution to the authority but after approval it would take at least 2 years for the new mess to be functional.
2. What role did FDA play in this?
FDA came on 27th, stayed from 12 am to 6 am and collected food samples to check them in the lab. The reports from FDA are still awaited.
3. What were the results of the stool samples taken by CMO?
Out of over 300 students who reported to the hospital and the 16 who were initially admitted, 5 samples were taken. The results were inconclusive.
4. So you don’t think it was a case of food poisoning?
The committee is working towards identifying the actual cause but from the symptoms it does not indicate food poisoning.
5. “Aditya Caterer” had been removed earlier. Why were they taken on again?
He was changed previously due to keeping unbranded items in store room, and not related to any such issue. Also there were some personal conflicts between him and the then council which led to his removal. Only 2 caterers since the past 8 years have been able to serve such a large population efficiently. In the last tender, Aditya caterer had bid the lowest among the shortlisted caterers, hence, it was selected.
6. What do you do when you do not want to consider a caterer in tendering process ?
There are two stages of quotations – Technical Quotation and Commercial Quotation. Of all the caterers who apply the committee can choose the caterers which they want to consider for opening up of commercial quotation; the infamous ones aren’t allowed to move past the Technical Quotation stage.
7. H12, 13, 14 mess is supposed to be the best mess in the institute. If this is the state, what do you say about the other hostels?
H12, 13, 14 is not the best mess anymore. It is used to be when probably it was the only private mess in the institute. Now you have 6 private messes running in the institute serving almost 1/5th of the population of H-12, 13 and 14. Quality is getting diluted with increased quantity.
8. Is there any way to check the quality of food in the mess?
A set of brands are specified in the tender. Only those mentioned are to be used in preparing food. If the caterer wishes to change those, he has to take approval from the mess council. In this respect, mess committee needs to be vigilant and should check the store timely.
Regarding checking quality of the cooked food, as long as each area (cooking, washing etc) is maintained well and as per a specified set of norms, there shouldn’t be any problem.
9. What course of action is being taken?
Revamping of mess will be done by December end which includes completion of future kitchen, and converting of cooking area to washing area. Canteen floor will be elevated. The committee to float new tender for the mess of H-12, 13 and 14 has been formed and the tendering process has been initiated. The present caterer will continue till 1st December. People have been offered 100% rebate from now till the end of the semester, and around 10% of the students have already applied as of now. During the caterer changing process arrangement of food packets will be done for students.
From the Doctor’s Desk
Dr. Nisha Shah, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the IITB Hospital, confirmed the cases to be very mild to moderate in severity. Everyone who came to the Hospital that day was given emergency treatment. The entire hospital staff came down to attend to the patients. Speaking in terms of manpower, the more present the better, she said. Around 20 ambulances may have been required, but the situation was manageable- tum tums, cars and autos were deployed to ferry the students from the hostel to the hospital. The guest house would probably have been used had the numbers been more. Contingency measures demand such efforts.
Confirmatory tests, she said, require that same bacteria should grow from the stool samples as well as food. But since the food samples were not available, these confirmatory tests couldn’t be done. Regarding prevention she warned that students should know their vaccination schedule and take them timely. There are some vaccines specified for the people coming to live in Bombay, and specifically to live in an environment as of IIT, which follows the trend which has been seen with infections happening here before.
Apathy continues, this time at GJC:
When Mayank Sharma, an inmate of Room No. 102, Hostel 5, stood contemplatively with his hands on the banister in his hostel gazing into nothingness, he surely did not wish to be greeted with the filthy image of a worker from Ganesh Juice Centre urinating inside the juice centre arena, at the end of the small passage situated in the backward left which goes inside the kitchen. To revolt him further, the worker did not even wash his hands.
In light of the mass food poisoning that took place in hostels 12, 13 and 14, this is a very shocking incident which could have severe repercussion, seeing that a significantly large portion of the Institute consume fruit juices from GJC. Such complacence towards basic hygiene and sanitation in public eateries beg the question- are we waiting for another incident of such massive proportions before bucking up?