KUALA LUMPUR: Almost all foreign workers tested in a study were found to be carrying microbes which could cause food poisoning and even death, and a small percentage of them harboured antibiotic resistant bacteria, said researchers.
And temporary closure of dirty food eateries is not enough; the Government needs to address the systemic issue, they said.
A recent finding by a team of researchers from Universiti Malaya, led by Assoc Prof Dr Siti Nursheena Mohd Zain, found a high prevalence of food poisoning bacteria on the hands of foreign workers working in the food service industry.
The parasitologist said that from hand swabs taken from 383 legal migrant workers handling food in three cities – Ipoh, Kuala Terengganu and Shah Alam – almost all indicated a potential health hazard.
In the paper, “Microorganism as indicator of hygiene status among foreign food handlers in Peninsular Malaysia”, Dr Siti Nursheena and her team found a shocking 99.5% of workers sampled possessed high levels of Aerobic Plate Count (APC) exceeding acceptable standards.
Products showing unusually high APCs are potential health hazards, pending pathogen screening results.
The APC were higher among Indians followed by the Nepalese.
The APC was also higher among cooks, according to the paper published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health last October.
It also showed that 64% of workers sampled had high counts of Staphylococcus aureus which exceeded acceptable levels of hygiene while one-fifth showed high levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli).
Most of the time, Staphylococcus bacteria does not cause serious problems but can turn deadly if the bacteria enters the bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart.
E. coli, a diverse group of bacteria, can cause diarrhoea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia.
“Food handlers are a source of foodborne disease outbreaks in Malaysia.
“The findings indicate high probability of transmission of pathogenic bacteria from the food handlers’ hands to customers during meal preparation and serving and this calls for improvements in personal hygiene and sanitation standards by the relevant health authorities,” Dr Siti Nursheena told The Star.
Recently, shocking images of unhygienic practices in some popular restaurants – from kitchen workers washing dishes using water from puddles in the back alley of a restaurant, to rat and other vermin infestation in some well-known eateries in Kuala Lumpur – had emerged, raising concerns on public health.
The foreign workers studied were mostly those who arrived in the country recently but the results on high infection rate did not show much difference for length of stay in Malaysia.
The workers were from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Vietnam who worked in regular, non-high end mamak shops, coffee shops, cafes and hawker stalls.
In another study using the same samples, it was found that 3% of workers carried non-typhoidal Salmonella and they exhibited resistance to a broad range of antibiotics.
“Antibiotic resistance is not new to Salmonella but it is a concern although the percentage is small because if you can’t treat it, you can pass it to others through bad hygiene and sanitation.
“A high prevalence of these hand-contaminating bacteria serves as an indicator of poor hygiene and reflects the degree of contamination of raw foods, equipment and the kitchen environments.
“Temporary closure of premises is only a superficial gesture if no attempt is made to address some of the more systemic issues affecting the industry,” Dr Siti Nursheena.
Newly arrived workers were given instructions in Malay and English which were difficult for them to understand while training methods do not make a significant impression, she said.
They were also not assessed to ensure they possess minimum standards of hygiene and food safety knowledge, she said.
“If we are to ensure that Malaysians who enjoy eating out in restaurants are able to dine with full comfort and not worry about food safety, then we need to take urgent remedial measures to improve the management system of our foreign food handlers,” she said.
Dr Siti Nursheena said the team hoped the new health minister would address all those issues and that the programme will be evaluated regularly.
“The ministry should also consider certifying workers as a measure of restaurant standards while ensuring that the regulation and guidelines are enforced,” she said.
From 2002 to 2017, the Home Ministry recorded a dramatic increase of foreign workers from 1.06 million to 1.8 million.
Of these, about 250,000 work in the service sector including in restaurants, an increase of 80,000 workers between 2010 and 2017.
Meanwhile, the number of undocumented foreign workers is not known but it is estimated at two million.
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