FOOD caterers were fined and given demerit points by the National Environment Agency (NEA) 79 times last year for hygiene lapses, up from 14 times in 2008. Four caterers were suspended last year, one more than in 2008, for causing food poisoning on a mass scale or for accumulating 12 or more demerit points within a 12-month period. Last year, two out of four of the suspensions were due to food poisoning incidents. From January to May 12 this year, seven food caterers were suspended.
The NEA explained that the increase in enforcement actions was due to the increase in number of icensed food caterers, which grew from 270 in 2008 to 346 last year, and also due to more frequent checks by the agency’s officers. They usually conduct unannounced checks on licensed food operators to make sure they have separate storage areas for raw ingredients and cooked food, proper washing facilities and ventilation systems, among other things. Major infringements such as pest infestations and preparing food on the floor warrant six demerit points for each offence and a fine of $400 per offence.
Mum’s Kitchen Catering, for example, which has been suspended for the Pat’s Schoolhouse’s food poisoning case, was involved in another food poisoning incident last December. Checks by NEA found the kitchen floor littered with food waste and the operator was fined $300 and issued four demerit points. Follow-up checks in January found that the premises were well-maintained. NEA said the licences of food caterers have not been revoked so far.
Mr Anderson Tan, director of Xprienz, a company which teaches those in the food industry to handle food properly, said most food poisoning cases are the result of negligence by food handlers and customers but he thinks that the current hot weather may be another factor as food spoils faster in higher temperatures. “Usually between March and June, we hear of more incidents of food poisoning in the industry. They may go unreported because they are small numbers,” added Mr Tan.
Caterers interviewed said they welcomed the checks by NEA officers, which they see as a way to keep staff on their toes. Mr Thomas Chiam, group chef and owner of Friends Restaurant and Catering Group, said: “The checks are good but I think we need to look at going beyond the requirements, so that the industry as a whole can reach higher standards.”