Stricter laws needed to regulate food-catering firms

Many food caterers use a central kitchen, which lets them improve productivity and reap significant cost savings.
Many food caterers use a central kitchen, which lets them improve productivity and reap significant cost savings. PHOTOS: ST FILE, TIMOTHY DAVID

There has been a spike in food-poisoning cases and outbreaks of gastroenteritis in recent months, with the latest case affecting 238 children and staff in 12 PCF pre-schools and at Plan Student Care Centre (Food-poisoning cases hit 238 as kids, staff at 5 more pre-schools fall ill, March 30).

The authorities have moved swiftly to suspend the catering companies' operations, and are investigating. These incidents are happening often enough to warrant the authorities stepping in to review existing laws and the industry's food-safety processes.

The food poisoning is likely to have been due to viral or bacterial gastroenteritis from consuming contaminated food or water.

Unhygienic food handling is the most common culprit, when food handlers who carry viruses or bacteria do not wash their hands properly after using the toilet.

Many food caterers use a central kitchen, which lets them improve productivity and reap significant cost savings. However, the food-poisoning risk is also higher when the contaminated food is distributed to many places, as in the recently reported case.

Compared with food prepared in-house, where any food poisoning case can be more easily contained, a centralised kitchen with multiple distribution channels and destinations can cause a bigger outbreak should food safety be compromised.

Perhaps the law can be changed to make it compulsory for all food caterers with central kitchens of a certain size to have microbial scanners in their premises. Food-preparation areas should be quarantined like a clean room. People entering the area must have their hands scanned for bacteria and viruses, and their bodies disinfected.

Having hygiene certifications is one thing, but the behaviour of operators on the ground at all stages - from food preparation and delivery to set-up - can be the weakest link.

The onus falls on catering firms and their managements to take this seriously.

Stricter punishment, including imprisonment and disqualification from the food and beverage industry, should be meted out for lapses, to ensure that these firms carry out their duties diligently.

Ee Teck Siew

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2019, with the headline 'Stricter laws needed to regulate food-catering firms'. Print Edition | Subscribe