Making sure the food on our plates is safe

MALAYSIA is known – dare we say globally – for its diverse cuisine arising from the unique melting pot of cultures that make up the nation.

And Malaysians’ love for makan is deeply embedded in our society, an integral part of the nation’s cultural fabric.

But a troubling trend has emerged that will surely dent this gastronomic enthusiasm: an alarming rise in food poisoning cases.

Food poisoning incidents in Malaysia surged to 51 per 100,000 people in 2023, doubling from 18.4 incidents in 2021.

This increase highlights a critical need for vigilance among food traders, restaurant operators, and health authorities alike to ensure food for public consumption is always safe.

Many people seem to be unaware that food poisoning can be serious enough to cause deaths judging by the shock expressed over a recent fatal incident.

On June 8, pupils and teachers from 30 primary schools gathered in Gombak, Selangor, for a religious event at which fried noodles and eggs were served – 82 people fell ill due to food poisoning and two died.

This incident, and the alarming rise in cases, highlight the critical necessity of reminding everyone involved in selling food and drinks that stringent food safety measures must always be maintained.

To begin with, food traders and restaurant operators must make sure their workers maintain impeccable hygiene standards.

Many establishments faced a shortage of workers after the Covid-19 pandemic, and this has sometimes led to lapses in cleanliness and safe food handling practices.

All staff must undergo regular food safety and hygiene training sessions to overcome this – perhaps insist on certificates of participation so authorities can check.

Another thing for authorities to check on regularly is that staff health certification is up to date; everyone who handles food for public consumption is required to be vaccinated against typhoid.

And what about cleanliness of the kitchen and premises?

There are jokes on social media about how rats are on the menu alongside chicken in restaurant XYZ or stall ABC – but this is no laughing matter. Such places should be reported to council authorities right away.

This is where district-level health departments must play their part in safeguarding public health with regular inspections.

Most councils have a cleanliness grading system and outlets have to display their grade.

But Malaysians being the cynical souls that we are, don’t really believe in the grades. It would help if the grading system is made more transparent, perhaps with actions listed online for public access.

We can do our bit too, simply by voting with our wallets. If the place has a low cleanliness grade or even if it just looks dirty or the staff don’t handle food properly (did you notice that thumb sticking into your food?), don’t just close an eye because “the food is so tasty!” Stop spending your money there – and even better, report it.

The onus lies heavily on food operators and outlet owners to make sure hygiene standards for staff and premises are kept up. Perhaps the authorities can support them by offering training in this area.

Ensuring food safety is essential and must remain a top priority so that Malaysians’ joy in eating comes with the assurance that the food on our plates is safe.

Only then can we truly celebrate Malaysia’s rich culinary heritage with confidence and pride.

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