SINGAPORE - A food poisoning case involving baked goods from a home-based food business has triggered a discussion about whether operators should be more strictly regulated.
Some owners of such businesses say this is the way forward for this segment of the food scene, which enjoyed a growth spurt during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fifteen people experienced gastroenteritis symptoms after eating food from The Peachy SugarMaker on Aug 5 and 7. Nine had to be hospitalised, and are in stable condition. People who were warded after eating the bakes at one party tested positive for salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever, nausea and vomiting.
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has directed the business to stop operations, and is investigating the case with the Ministry of Health.
In an op-ed piece in The Business Times on Aug 16, lawyer Tay Eu-Yen, a member of the Restaurant Association of Singapore's management committee, and the group's legal adviser, called for regulatory oversight.
She wrote: "Like restaurants, gastro bars, fast-food outlets, casual eateries and hawker stalls, home-based food businesses prepare and handle food that they then sell and serve to consumers. Unlike their shop-based counterparts, they are not subject to any licensing requirements or inspections by the SFA."
She added that only a robust licensing regime that offers "accreditation to well-run businesses and filters out poorly managed ones can provide consumers with the level of protection needed for trust to build".
Although there have always been small-scale home food businesses here, they mushroomed after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Out-of-work or furloughed Singaporeans turned to selling food cooked from home because of the low barrier to entry.
Because they do not need to register their businesses, there is no way of telling how many of them exist in Singapore and how much this segment of the food industry is worth.
The SFA's website says that as long as operators comply with its guidelines on food hygiene, they do not require a licence from the agency. The website also urges them to attend the Food Safety Course Level 1, choosing from a list of approved training centres.
Some operators, however, are in favour of stricter regulation.
Ms Sandra Sim, a former restaurateur who runs Ladyboss Dining Club, a private dining business, and also sells food for delivery and takeaway, has taken the food safety course.
It should be a requirement, she added, noting: "It's important to know the proper way to handle and store food, how to manage deliveries."
Mr Paul Leong, who with his wife Marie runs Marie Home Foods, selling coconut cake, kueh salat, cheesecake and cookies, is also for some controls.
He said: "I kind of expected that it might happen. Honestly, I don't mind it. It's better to live with regulations than to be operating in this grey area."
Another operator, Ms Chan Fang Lynn of Loaded Gun Kitchen, which sells vegan dips and burger patties, said: "Regulations will ensure all businesses are held to the same standard of compliance. As more and more Singaporeans are choosing to run businesses out of their homes, it is wise for the Government to figure out a framework to regulate... without stifling innovation and economic opportunity."
Ms Whang I-Wen, who runs Able Bagel from home, said regulating these businesses might be logistically difficult, given the sheer number. But, she added, she is all for the authorities mandating that operators take the food safety course, at the very least.
She said: "For any food business, one of the worst nightmares is that someone falls ill after consuming your food. It's important for any food business, whether it's a restaurant or hawker stall or home business, to take food safety seriously."
But some operators prefer to be left alone.
Mr Xavier Lee, who runs Flourcrafts, which sells caneles, cookies, scones and tarts, said licensing would "take away the fluidity and ease of entry for most people". He added that regulations and restrictions are a quick but short-term solution.
He added: "Establishing a proper education framework, knowledge about food safety and inculcating good work ethics in this generation of home-based food businesses would be better and more meaningful."
Ms Julia Tan, who started Just Julia Homebakes in 2016 from home, and is opening a bricks and mortar shop next month, said the checks and regulations for her food shop licence are not "extremely excessive".
But she is against regulating home-based food businesses.
"Honestly, it is not feasible, with so many people doing it now. Who is going to do the enforcement?"
The 12 home-based food business operators interviewed said they work hard to ensure food safety. Some have bought commercial chillers, while some use dedicated home fridges to avoid cross-contamination. Some also go for industrial grade sanitiser to clean their workspaces.
Mr Pah Qi Fan, who runs The Crane Grain, selling bakes and tiramisu, modified his recipe for the Italian dessert, which typically uses raw egg yolks as an ingredient. He "cooks" the yolks by whipping them with boiling sugar syrup. The delivery company he uses, Axon Fresh, stores his food in industrial grade thermal boxes.
His mousse cakes are sent out frozen.
"Once they get to the customer, they would be sufficiently defrosted but still cold enough that they are not melted," he said.
Loaded Gun Kitchen's Ms Chan sent her dips to be tested for bacterial growth. She gave the testing facility a 14-day-old batch, and the report said the product was safe for consumption.
"My customers give the dips to their children, and when I launched the dips, I could say they had a two-week shelf life if stored in the fridge," she said.
Marie Home Foods' Mr Leong said the $15 delivery fee paid by customers ensures that the cakes spend as little time as possible in transit. The driver delivers to just one location each time, not to multiple addresses. He also includes a small ice pack in the cake boxes.
Ms Evelyn Chew, a trader, said that after reading about the food poisoning case, she is more careful about ordering food.
"I prefer to order from someone with a reputation to protect, rather than from an unknown newbie," she added. "There are just too many new kids on the block cashing in, and not enough regulations to ensure food safety and cleanliness."
Finance executive Roger Tay usually checks out reviews for new home-based businesses before ordering from them.
"I would avoid ordering again from a vendor if I had personally experienced food poisoning, or if I hear of others getting food poisoning. But otherwise, I am happy to continue to support small F&B (food and beverage) businesses."