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Written by RUMILA G
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If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die

This is Duke Orsino in William Shakespeare’s classic the Twelfth Night. The Duke is asking for more music because he is frustrated in his courtship of Countess Olivia. He muses that an excess of music might cure his obsession with love, in the way that eating too much removes one’s appetite for food.

It could be a similar sentiment that inspired our food minister Ram Vilas Paswan to come up with the idea of a food quota for hotels and restaurants. In fact, Paswan does not want people to be served too much food in case it spoils the appetite. The thought behind it must have been noble, I’m sure, but a little more thought would have served the minister well. For even before the words were out of his plate, the twiterrati and hotel and restaurant owners must have more than filled his appetite with a stomach full of tweets.

First came the Supreme Court’s curious ban on selling of liquor 500 metres off the highways which roped many an unsuspecting hotel and restro-bars having to turn off their taps. But even before the question on quenching the collective thirst was sorted, another bright idea of reducing the size of the food plate was floated.

Surely the industry received the two with parched throats and acute stomach pangs

Paswan, inspired by Modi’s Mann Ki Baat suddenly came up with this unique idea. “If a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six? It's a wastage of food and also money. People pay for things that they don't eat.“

Inspired perhaps by the best diets in the world, he decided that the secret sauce for preventing wastage of food is portion control and will soon define portion sizes for food served in hotels and restaurants

The ministry plans to call a meeting of representatives from the food industry and take their assistance in defining portion sizes before implementing the plan that was inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments against food wastage in his Mann Ki Baat talk on 9 April.

To be sure, the plan, as currently envisaged, doesn’t mean restricting how much a person will eat, as reported by a few websites and the social media, but simply defining portion sizes. “If a person eats two idlis, why serve four?” Paswan asked rhetorically. It is also likely that the definition could include either the size or weight of the servings

India will become perhaps the first country in the world to define portion sizes in restaurants, although many countries, including India, have such norms for packaged and processed foods. In the early 2010s, New York State tried to prescribe and restrict portion sizes for aerated soft drinks served at restaurants because then mayor Michael Bloomberg was worried people were consuming too much sugar, but the plan had to be eventually abandoned.

Restaurant owners appreciated the move’s sentiment but said it was difficult to implement. “Although the thought behind this concept is noble and we appreciate it, but to implement this idea is highly impractical,” Dilip Datwani, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association Western India, said. “If the suggested move does come into effect, the pricing would most certainly be affected, making eating out more expensive for the consumer,” he added.

Restaurants may also have to change the way they prepare food in their kitchens. “Although the move is a good one to prevent wastage, standardization (of portions) will be very difficult,” Rajesh Mohta, director and chief financial officer of Speciality Restaurants said. “Restaurants already weigh ingredients keeping recipes in mind. Our food is made in kitchens by people, by chefs.” Unlike automated food preparation, a restaurant’s operations would find it hard to churn out standard food portions, Mohta said.

Some restaurants sell items whose large portion size is their USP. For instance, the coffee chain Coffee by Di Bella sells milkshakes called Freakshakes that are loaded with calorie-rich ingredients.

“Everyone has their own speciality that the customers come for,” Rahul Leekha, Coffee by Di Bella’s India head, said. “The government cannot demand that this particular portion is the portion to sell. If we start doing that, the place loses its novelty.”

Like Mohta, Leekha said that it will be difficult to change recipes that are designed and standardized over time. “We are an international brand that follows recipes given to us (by the parent),” he said.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the portion sizes would be strict directions or general guidelines.

If Paswan’s suggestions are to be implemented, they would have to encompass several rules and regulations that currently govern how restaurant kitchens function. These include the Standards of Weights and Measures Act, 1976 that makes display of a maximum retail price or MRP mandatory for a product based on its weight and measure

Datwani added that the government will also have to modify regulations of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that apply to restaurants. Restaurants need an FSSAI licence to operate. FSSAI regulates the quality of food served and hygiene level of kitchens, among other things, and prescribes penalties for violations.

Restaurateur Umang Tewari says assessing how much a person will eat on an average is bizarre. “Customers will soon start blaming us for overcharging. The minister says that if a person eats two prawns, why should he/she be served six. What will happen to the person who eats four? He will order another portion and the extra bit will be wasted. It is becoming difficult for us stay updated each day with such bizarre rules and orders. We are trying to do business and not terrorists who should be controlled and monitored always,” says Tewari

Hoteliers also argue that more than in restaurants and hotels, where a majority of customers prefers to take away doggie bags, real wastage happens at private parties and weddings. “What is the government going to do in the case of weddings? Are they going to ask the halwai to make only 2,000 rotis for a gathering? Food wasted at private parties and functions should be monitored first. It is again one of those things where the government’s intention is good, but the execution is very poor, just like the highway liquor ban,” says restaurateur Zorawar Kalra.

Instead of coming up with bsurd and bizarre rules and orders for the F&B industry, the government should proactively participate in coming up with practical solutions to problems, restaurant owners say. Zorawar says that instead of limiting portions of food, the government should set up centres near major hubs like Connaught Place, Hauz Khas Village and Cyber Hub, to distribute food among the needy. “That’s what we do in our restaurants, we distribute our leftover food among the poor or we give it to orphanages. The government should set up such centres for food distribution, so that more restaurants and hotels can do this. Fixing portions of food are no solution, in fact, if implemented, this will set a very wrong example to the rest of the world.”

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