NEA slams restaurant for hygiene lapses: Spize outlets are in our crosshairs

NEA slams restaurant for hygiene lapses: Spize outlets are in our crosshairs
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The operating licences of Spize at River Valley have been terminated with immediate effect.

The health authorities made the announcement during a media briefing at the Environment Building on Friday (Nov 7).

During the briefing, Mr Derek Ho, director-general of the National Environment Agency's (NEA) Environmental Public Health Division, did not hide his anger.

"We'll be sending them to court," he said.

"The intent is to press as many charges as we can against them for all the various offences that we have observed.

"(Their other outlets) are in our crosshairs now and we will keep a close watch on them."

The almost month-long investigations into the Spize food poisoning incident found numerous lapses at Spize.

A joint statement by the Ministry of Health (MOH), NEA and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore said that there were seven food poisoning incidents linked to the outlet across the period of Nov 6 to 9. Out of the 221 people who consumed food prepared during that time, there were 82 reported cases.

A total of 47 people were hospitalised. One man died.

Sats officer Fadli Salleh, 38, died after eating a bento box prepared by Spize for a Deepavali celebration at Brink's Singapore on Nov 6.

The cause of death is still pending and has been classified as a coroner's case.

The bacteria Salmonella Typhimurium was identified as the cause of the outbreak and was detected in both cooked and uncooked food. It was also present on door handles.

Mr Ho said: "Salmonella does not drop out of the sky.

"Bacteria does not walk to the door handle, it must have got there because the food handler's hands were dirty."

In a sample of belacan egg fried rice, tests found the bacteria along with faecal coliforms.

Faecal coliforms were also detected from a chopping board and knife used for ready-to-eat food.

Associate professor Vernon Lee, director of communicable diseases at MOH, explained that faecal coliforms were clusters of general bacteria.

"It shows that the egg fried rice in this case is substantially contaminated with a variety of things," he said.

"It's not possible to identify the exact source."

Faecal coliforms are typically found in human and animal faecal matter.

The authorities also clarified that rats were not the cause of the outbreak.

Follow-up investigations on Nov 14 also found that Spize did not discard of all food items as they had claimed.

Despite orders given on Nov 9 to dispose of all food items, Spize had instead sent eggs from the River Valley outlet to the Spize outlet at Temasek Club.

Unlabelled dried salted fish, chicken floss and fish crackers were also found to be still kept in the store.

Investigations also found that Spize had employed seven unregistered food handlers and that there was poor personal hygiene and food preparation practices, including the absence of soap.

Mr Ho said: "Surely the person who is operating on the ground knows that there's no soap, but why didn't he tell his boss?

"If you're just 'never mind, heck care - my management also don't care, I also like that...', then you end up with this situation where everybody doesn't think it's their duty to ensure that the food is safe."

He added that during interviews, the food handlers revealed further lapses.

"They were using unlicensed areas in the two-storey shop," he said referring to a food preparation area built on the second storey of the River Valley outlet.

Out of the 34 food handlers from the outlet who were checked, one also tested positive for Norovirus, and another for Campylobacter Jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning.

The NEA also revealed that they conducted about 88,000 inspections around Singapore last year alone.

The last inspection at the River Valley outlet prior to the incident was conducted in October. NEA did not find any lapses then.

But even with enforcement, said Mr Ho, the onus is on food businesses to ensure a duty of care to consumers.

He said: "If you're pushing the boundary and you're trying to cut corners and just trying to profiteer from it, just trying to make a fast buck, then I would say you have misjudged, you have failed in your duty of care.

"There are more than 39,000 licensed food outlets out there, I cannot be having an inspector overseeing every single food handler and ensuring things are done properly."

He added that the authorities will be meeting with stakeholders and the food business associations within the next month to send a strong message.

"In no uncertain terms we'll get them to understand that they have to do the right thing going forward into this festive season," he said.

"The fact that there is a labour shortage in the market is no excuse for them to take shortcuts."

This article was first published inĀ The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.

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