Flashback #Star50: When killer noodles gripped M’sia


IT was the talk of the town. More than one town, in fact.

And it resembles the tail of a rat. Hence, its name lo shi fun in Cantonese, which translates literally to “rat noodles”.

Three decades ago, several towns in Perak were gripped by anxiety over a series of food poisoning that involved the noodles.

It eventually claimed the lives of 13 children and an elderly woman in October 1988.

A post-mortem indicated that their livers were damaged.

“Most of us dared not eat lo shi fun for a while, ” recalled former teacher Winnie Low, who is based in Ipoh.

There was no social media circulating fake news back then but rumours were aplenty about the case.

“It took quite a while for the investigators to pinpoint the cause of the food poisoning, ” said a Kampar lecturer, who declined to be named.

“So, in the meantime, there were even rumours that it was caused by lo mai gai (steamed glutinous rice with chicken).

“For a while, we stopped buying lo mai gai from our regular stall.”

Others resorted to traditional beliefs. Apparently, thousands of packets of a particular type of Chinese herbs were sold after it was said to be an antidote.

Sarjit Kaur, who was 19 back then, remembered her late father’s tales while he was working as an attendant at Hospital Kampar.

“He was working at the hospital, which received the casualties. He was so sad telling us about the case, ” she said.

Retired teacher Choong Sow Lin, 81, said: “We stopped eating lo shi fun for a while. But after some time, when confidence returned, we resumed eating it.”

When the tragedy happened, Sunday Star wrote in a front-page editorial on On Oct 23, 1988, questioning the deaths.

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“What do you tell their parents? We’re sorry it happened? And what do you tell the other worried parents? No more children will die?”

The young victims were just between two-and-a-half years old and 11, recalled Dr Jit Singh, who was then the head of epidemiology with the Health Ministry.

He had assisted the head of the investigation team, who was the Health deputy director. Other officers included those from the Institute of Medical Research, Chemistry Department, Hospital Ipoh, and Perak state and district health departments.

“We also had advisers from CDC Atlanta and a specialist laboratory in London, ” said Dr Jit.

“Toxicological examination on organs in 10 cases showed a high concentration of aflatoxin in tissues of the deceased.”

Dr Jit, who has since retired, said it was not a case of boric acid poisoning.

“Some people said that it was boric acid, which was false. This was the rumour that we had to overcome, ” he said.

He said the aflatoxin poison was traced and detected to the flour used in a noodle factory in Ipoh.

After the poisoning case, the state government doubled its efforts on tracking down illegal noodle makers.

It also raised awareness of food hygiene in school canteens to minimise the risk of contamination.

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