SINGAPORE - The National Environment Agency (NEA) is looking to improve the speed at which the public is notified of food operators' licence suspensions.
The agency is considering putting quick links on its website, and having push notifications to its myENV app to quickly inform consumers of such suspensions.
This will also make it easier for customers to check the hygiene records of food operators.
These new initiatives were announced in Parliament by Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor on Monday (Jan 14), when she responded to questions from four MPs about the spate of mass food poisonings late last year that affected more than 500 people.
"We are also looking into measures to better notify the public about a food operator's licence suspension," she said at the Parliament sitting.
She added: "Consumers are urged to engage only licensed caterers, and consume catered food within the stipulated 'consume by' time period. Those who come across poor hygiene practices in food establishments should provide feedback to the authorities for further investigation."
NEA officers are now equipped with tablets, allowing them to access food operators' information and food safety history on the go.
They are also able to plan their inspections efficiently and be alerted of food-related incidents to allow for a quicker response.
Dr Khor also provided an update on the five cases of food poisoning last year, saying that tough action has been taken against the "food operators who have violated the law" and those responsible for the incidents.
Joint investigations by the Ministry of Health, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and the NEA have since confirmed that there were no links between the incidents.
But inadequate hygiene practices among food handlers were found in all five caterers, and that a proliferation of bacteria due to bad hygiene caused people to become sick after consuming the food.
The NEA will continue to suspend the operating licences of Tung Lok catering - where 190 people fell ill with symptoms of gastroenteritis after eating food prepared by the restaurant group - and the ballroom and affected kitchen at Mandarin Orchard hotel, where 175 people came down with food poisoning.
Their licences will be suspended until the operators have complied with the requirements imposed by the agency.
This includes sanitising the affected areas, reviewing hygiene processes and rectifying the lapses.
Dr Khor added that staff appointed as Food Hygiene Officers (FHO) at premises suspended by NEA will be required to go for training to be re-certified for the WSQ "Conduct Food & Beverage Hygiene Audit" qualification.
"The FHO of the suspended food establishments must be properly trained and re-certified before they can recommence operations," she said.
She said that an average of about 110 food establishments have been suspended annually in the past five years because of hygiene lapses.
The NEA has also stepped up checks on food establishments, carrying out 77,000 inspections of all food retail establishments last year.
It will continue to conduct surprise checks, where officials will turn up unannounced to check on food retail premises, Dr Khor said in response to a question from Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC).
Dr Khor said that part of these inspections included more than 2,400 regular checks on food operators that provide catering services or have substantial catering operations.
She said that in addition to these routine checks, more than 900 additional inspections have been conducted since December, bringing the total number of checks on caterers up to 3,300.
The NEA also intends to work with the AVA to strengthen the overall regulatory framework for food operators in the lead-up to the Singapore Food Agency, which will be formed on April 1 to oversee food safety and security.
Dr Khor said the penalty regime for food operators involved in significant food poisoning incidents will be tightened.
The total composition amounts for fines will be increased and those who commit serious hygiene offences will be legally prosecuted.
The penalty for selling food found unfit for human consumption now includes a fine of up to $10,000 for the first offence, and a fine of $20,000 or imprisonment of three months or both for repeat offenders.
In response to a question from Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) on whether harsher penalties or a jail term could be imposed for first offenders with gross negligence of food hygiene, Dr Khor said the NEA will press for deterrent sentences to be imposed by the courts.
"The NEA will continue to monitor the food operators closely, and will be prepared to tighten enforcement further, if necessary.
"Even as we operate a stringent regulatory regime, food operators bear the ultimate responsibility to serve safe and clean food to their customers, and must ensure that their premises are kept clean, food handlers practise good hygiene and the food prepared is safe for consumption."