Singapore's food outlets are under increasing pressure to ensure that they adhere to food safety regulations, based on the number of suspension orders issued by the authorities.
The year 2015 saw a dramatic escalation in enforcement action by the National Environment Agency (NEA), with almost a doubling in suspension notices from 70 in 2014 to 125 that year. NEA has kept up the pressure since, with 132 suspensions last year and 56 in the first five months of this year.
Among these, areas such as Little India, Geylang and Punggol have incurred particularly large numbers of suspension orders.
Food outlets in other highly populated areas like Yishun, Ang Mo Kio, Tiong Bahru and Orchard Road had no suspensions over the past year.
NEA made more than 148,500 inspections and took over 3,200 enforcement actions against food outlets last year, up from about 146,500 inspections and about 2,500 actions in 2013.
There are more than 37,000 food outlets licensed by NEA, but it did not clarify whether this number has changed over the years.
The agency revised its Points Demerit System in April 2014, giving more points for offences of high risk to food safety and fewer points to administrative or low-risk offences.
It added that the rate of food poisoning has remained low over the same period, with 0.32 per cent or less of food outlets linked to food poisoning outbreaks each year.
Some hawkers have noticed an increase in the frequency of inspections. Mr Ni Jianhua, 49, who has sold vegetarian food with his wife at Geylang Serai Market for 10 years, said NEA was inspecting the area around once a month before 2015, but it is now two or three times a month.
Some in the food industry have attributed higher suspension rates in certain areas to crowding and other factors.
There are many restaurants in a very small area (in Little India), and a good crop of both locals and tourists come this way. When there's heavy traffic, they (restaurants) need to clear the crowd as quickly as possible and may not be able to follow strict standards. When there are more complaints in this area, then NEA has to make more checks.
MR RAJMOHAN, secretary of the Indian Restaurants Association Singapore, on the higher suspension rates in certain areas.
Mr Rajmohan, 38, secretary of the Indian Restaurants Association Singapore, told The Straits Times: "There are many restaurants in a very small area (in Little India), and a good crop of both locals and tourists come this way. When there's heavy traffic, they (restaurants) need to clear the crowd as quickly as possible and may not be able to follow strict standards.
"When there are more complaints in this area, then NEA has to make more checks."
Restaurant managers in the area told ST that NEA comes around at least once or twice a month.
TACKLING HOT SPOTS
If there are hot spots, they need to be addressed through education and supervision as well as enforcement.
MR TEO SER LUCK, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, suggesting ways to tackle the problem.
Mr Rajmohan also offered another possible reason for the high incidence of suspensions.
"Preparing Indian cuisine tends to be messier because of heavy usage of spices and gravy," he said. "But of course, none of these (factors) is a valid reason for being unclean."
Mr Teo Ser Luck, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, suggested tackling the problem from multiple angles. "If there are hot spots, they need to be addressed through education and supervision as well as enforcement," he said.
Meanwhile, stallholders in Yishun told ST on Thursday that NEA makes regular inspections there.
No food outlet in Yishun has been suspended in the last year.
The owner of an islandwide coffee shop chain, who wished to remain anonymous, said sometimes inspection officers would appraise the situation before acting.
"Some officers are nicer and more understanding, and will give the stallholder one more chance if he did not do it on purpose, unless it's very serious and caused food poisoning," he told ST.
He said inspection officers in other places may not be as lenient.
When asked about this, an NEA spokesman said: "The inspection regime is applied to all licensed food retail establishments and is not based on geographical regions in Singapore."