SINGAPORE - A caterer has been suspended after an outbreak of gastroenteritis across several PCF Sparkletots outlets, which led to at least 109 people falling ill, with 15 taken to hospital.
This is the third case of gastroenteritis in pre-schools in recent months. A Feb 1 lunch at PCF's Toa Payoh outlet left 14 children vomiting and having diarrhoea. And, on Feb 26, the authorities announced that 31 people developed gastroenteritis at Tanglin MindChamps pre-school.
On Wednesday morning (March 27), the Ministry of Health (MOH), National Environment Agency (NEA) and Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) told The Straits Times that they are investigating the incident.
The outbreak of gastroenteritis, which as of Wednesday had developed across four Sparkletots pre-schools, was traced to the consumption of food prepared by caterer Kate's Catering.
When contacted by ST, a spokesman for Kate's Catering said that it was working with the respective authorities.
Six of the 15 who were hospitalised have been discharged.
In response to media queries, PCF Sparkletots confirmed that the four pre-schools affected were Sengkang Central Blocks 210, 270, 290A and 298B.
"We are taking this matter seriously and our priority is to ensure that our children receive the necessary medical care and attention," the statement said.
The centres are also in close contact with parents of affected pupils and monitoring their conditions.
Cleaning and disinfection protocols have been carried out at the centres to reduce the risks of further contamination, PCF added.
PCF Sparkletots is monitoring the situation in seven other centres which are served by Kate's Catering and is assisting the authorities with the investigation.
"Whilst the cause of the children's illnesses has yet to be determined, as a precautionary measure, PCF Sparkletots has suspended this caterer's services at all 11 centres for an indefinite period of time," PCF said.
The pre-school operator has arranged for meals to be provided by a certified in-house cook for the time being, and will continue to monitor this temporary arrangement closely, the statement added.
The authorities were notified of the first cluster of cases last Friday, and conducted an inspection of the caterer's premises on the same day.
On Monday, however, additional clusters of cases were reported, prompting the NEA to instruct Kate's Catering to suspend its operations with effect from Tuesday, pending investigations by the various agencies.
As part of the investigations, food handlers were sent for stool screening, and food and environmental samples were taken for testing.
Last year, 131 cases of gastroenteritis were reported after people consumed food prepared by FoodTalks Caterer & Manufacturer for a learning camp. None of the victims were hospitalised.
Many parents at the Block 270 Sengkang Central pre-school that ST spoke to said while they were concerned about the level of food safety at the PCF outlets, they did not blame the school for the incident.
Mr Jimmy Lim, whose four-year-old son experienced symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and a fever of up to 39 deg C since last Thursday, said the incident could have been "inevitable" due to human error.
"There are so many viruses around, it may not even be food poisoning. We should not be too quick to judge," added Mr Lim, 35, an interior designer.
His son recovered on Tuesday and returned to school on Wednesday, said Mr Lim.
Some parents also said they hope the pre-school will return to serving food cooked in-house after the incident.
Mr Raymond Ng, 38, who works in sales, said he is worried but does not intend to switch pre-schools. "It's worrying, but I have confidence in the teachers. We're just concerned about the level of food safety."
In response to queries from ST, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) said it was working with the authorities to investigate the outbreak of gastroenteritis at the pre-schools.
It added that along with MOH, NEA and AVA, ECDA had issued a food hygiene advisory to all pre-schools on March 7.
"ECDA has also stepped up health and hygiene checks during routine visits to centres where they are advised on food hygiene practices and infection control measures," the agency added.