SINGAPORE - The National Environment Agency (NEA) has terminated the operating licences of Spize restaurant in River Valley Road with immediate effect, in view of the "egregious nature" of the food hygiene lapses it found following a fatal food poisoning incident on Nov 6.
The agency will also charge the restaurant in court, after it found an "unusually severe" salmonella outbreak in its investigations into seven food poisoning incidents between Nov 6 and 9.
A joint inspection on Nov 14 by the NEA, Ministry of Health (MOH) and Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) found lapses such as having seven unregistered food handlers and preparing food outside the licensed kitchen area. There were also poor personal hygiene and food preparation practices observed among the food handlers.
The findings into the completed investigations were released at a media briefing at the Environment Building in Scotts Road on Friday (Dec 7).
“We are angry and upset, and it is unbecoming that the operators are not taking (food hygiene) seriously,” said NEA’s director-general of public health Derek Ho, at the briefing.
Mr Ho said NEA takes a “tough stance” on food hygiene, adding that operators have a duty to customers to serve food that is safe to eat.
“We will ensure that the appropriate weight of the law is taken upon them, for the lack of this minimum duty of care,” he added.
An earlier joint inspection on Nov 7, which led to a suspension of the outlet's licences, found lapses such as leaving ready-to-eat food uncovered in a chiller, not providing soap for hand-washing, and slotting knives for preparing ready-to-eat food in the gap between the food preparation tables.
A joint statement by the MOH, NEA and AVA on Friday (Dec 7) said the authorities found seven food poisoning incidents linked to the outlet between Nov 6 and 9, with 82 reported cases out of 221 people who consumed food prepared there.
The fatal case involved Sats officer Fadli Salleh, 38, who fell ill and died after eating a bento box prepared for a Deepavali celebration organised by security company Brink's Singapore and held on its premises at Kaki Bukit on Nov 6.
The cause of death is pending and has been classified as a coroner's case, said the joint statement. It is unclear what food Mr Fadli ate.
A commonly occurring bacterium, Salmonella typhimurium, was found in investigations of blood and stool samples from those who fell ill, as well as of the raw and ready-to-eat food, and environmental samples from the outlet.
They were closely related by genetic analysis, suggesting they are from the same source, said the joint statement.
"The investigations found that the outbreak of salmonella gastroenteritis was unusually severe, suggesting that the food was likely to be heavily contaminated," added the statement.
In the ready-to-eat food, the salmonella bacterium was found in belacan egg fried rice. It was also found in raw chicken samples and kang kong.
Associate Professor Vernon Lee, director for communicable diseases at MOH, said the investigations did not establish whether there was a long delay between the preparation and consumption of food from the outlet.
The joint statement added that, of the 35 handlers at the outlet, seven were unregistered with NEA.
Spize, a popular supper haunt that first opened in 1997, has four outlets - the other three are in Simpang Bedok, Rifle Range Road and Siglap.
The authorities have checked these other outlets “as a precaution”. They have found no evidence to link the current outbreak to them, and have allowed the outlets to continue operations, said the statement.
“Spize is in our crosshairs now,” Mr Ho said, when asked whether checks would be stepped up in the other outlets. “We will keep a watch on them.”
NEA had suspended Spize’s operations at River Valley from Nov 9, when more cases of gastroenteritis were reported.
The last inspection of the outlet was conducted in October, Mr Ho said. It was given a written warning for a minor infraction, where they failed to provide enough covered refuse bins on the premises.
NEA officers made 88,000 inspections last year across more than 39,000 licensed food outlets in Singapore, said Mr Ho. Outfits such as Spize that provide catering services are checked three times a year on average.
The NEA suspends operators who accumulate 12 or more demerit points under their Points Demerit System.
From January to November this year, 84 retail establishments have been suspended.
The NEA shared that the top-three hygiene-related infringements committed by licensees of food retail establishments are failures to keep licensed premises clean, keeping them free of pest infestations, and in registering food handlers.
The incident involving Spize was among a number of food poisoning incidents last month that affected about 400 people, including one involving FoodTalks Caterer & Manufacturer and another, TungLok Catering, the catering arm of the TungLok restaurant group.
The latest incident, at Mandarin Orchard Hotel, led to 175 people falling ill with food poisoning after attending four separate events at the grand ballroom between Dec 1 and 3.
NEA and AVA reiterated on Friday that they are stepping up their checks on food establishments in the year-end festive season, with more people dining out and ordering catered food.
Mr Ho said that as regulators, they have to play their role in doing audits and spot-checks, but they cannot be overseeing every operator all the time.
“As operators, if you want to be in this business, it is your duty of care to ensure that every meal you prepare meets those minimum standards. That’s the strong message we want to send out.”