Step up food safety checks


MEDIA reports on cases of food poisoning in the country, especially involving students, seem to be on the rise lately. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) views the matter seriously and would like to urge everyone involved, including the relevant authorities, school administrators, owners of eateries, caterers, food handlers and parents to take appropriate steps to prevent food contamination from becoming a serious health threat.

We do not want to see a repeat of the recent food poisoning case in Batu Gajah, Perak which claimed one life and left several others needing hospital care.

Less than a month after the incident in Batu Gajah, where victims consumed pesticide-contaminated food bought at a stall there, another food poisoning episode took place at Sekolah Menengah Sains Tapah in Perak. In this incident, 43 students and a teacher fell sick after eating roti jala with chicken curry at the hostel. It was later found that the chicken used in the curry was contaminated by salmonella bacteria.

It was the second case of food poisoning reported in the school in the past three years. In October 2013, more than 270 students suffered food poisoning from a chicken dish served at the school’s dining hall.

Close on the heels of the case at the boarding school came another in Sekolah Kebangsaan Tiong in Kota Baru, Kelantan where 29 pupils suffered food poisoning after eating spicy chicken in the school canteen.

This canteen has been closed for two weeks to facilitate an investigation and the operator risks losing his contract if the Health Department’s investigation finds him to be negligent.

Students must be protected from not only accidents and crime within the school compound but they should also have access to safe and hygienic food in the canteen or dining hall.

As for food outlets and restaurants, the owners must ensure that people whom they hire must be qualified and practise hygienic and safe food preparation and handling.

In the wake of the recent food poisoning incidents, there should be close monitoring on food preparation and handling as well as frequent checks on eateries and school canteens throughout the country.

In Malaysia, roadside food stalls are mushrooming and frequented by the public who seem to be unsure whether these stall owners have certificates from the Health Ministry or permits from local authorities.

Furthermore, many restaurants, cafes and outlets at food courts today hire foreigners to cook and prepare food.

I believe that random checks and on-the-spot compound issued by the ministry and local authorities will help improve the cleanliness of the eateries and ensure safe and hygienic food preparation and handling.

The Health Ministry has to conduct more frequent inspections at all eateries as compared to the current practice of once a year, or when there are food poisoning cases or customer complaints. Local authorities also have to step up their inspection at eateries in their jurisdiction and focus on the roadside stalls to weed out the unlicensed ones.

At the same time, the authorities should recall unsafe or contaminated food in the wet markets, mini markets, supermarkets or hypermarkets and impose severe punishment on wrongdoers.

Under the law, owners or operators of eateries are not supposed to employ food handlers to work at their premises unless these people have undergone training and have been medically examined and vaccinated by registered medical practitioners. Failing to do so, the eatery owners or operators are liable to a maximum fine of RM10,000 and a jail sentence not exceeding two years.

A similar penalty awaits any food handler in any eatery who fails to undergo training or obtain a Food Handler Training certi-ficate.

The Food Act 1983 is a very comprehensive law providing protection to the public against health hazards and addressing wrongdoings in the preparation and sale of food. The Food Hygiene Regulations 2009 of the Act covers registration of food premises; conduct and maintenance of food premises; food handler; special requirements in handling, preparing, packing, serving, storing and selling of specific food (meat, fish, ice cream and frozen confection, milk, ice and vending machine); and carriage of food.

Our humid weather promotes the breeding of harmful pests such as cockroaches, rats and flies that can contaminate the food. This is another aspect that should not be ignored, besides cleanliness of tables and utensils, toilets and food storage facilities.

As for primary school pupils, teachers and parents have to teach them food safety and how to spot spoiled food by using senses like sight, smell and taste.

School administrators or parent-teacher associations have to ensure that sinks in school canteens are properly maintained and soap is provided for the students to clean their hands before and after meals.

For safe food to reach end users, the relevant authorities have to ensure that food producers and handlers comply with safe and hygienic practices throughout the supply chain. Consumers have to be conscious of food safety and avoid dirty eateries.

TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE

Chairman, NIOSH

Letters , Letters , food safety