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Pat’s Schoolhouse pupils, staff hit by food poisoning

  Friday, 13 l 05 l 2011  Source: The Straits Times   
By: Amelia Tan and Jane Ng

7 kids hospitalized and 218 others ill; caterer’s licence suspended for now

SEVEN children from Pat’s Schoolhouse have been hospitalized for food poisoning, and another 211 children and seven teachers are ill with related symptoms. They fell ill after eating food from caterer Mum’s Kitchen Catering, whose licence has been temporarily suspended by the National Environment Agency (NEA) pending the outcome of investigations. NEA and the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a joint press statement yesterday that the catering company had been fined for lapses in a food poisoning incident in December last year, when 35 people attending a company function came down with diarrhea and started vomiting.

In this case, the children and teachers from six of the group’s 14 centres have come down with symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and fever. The six centres are in Halifax Road, Lim Ah Pin Road, Whitley Road, Claymore Road, Mount Emily and Jalan Ulu Siglap. The food served in Pat’s Schoolhouse, which has 2,000 children ranging from infants to six-year-olds across its 14 centres, is centrally prepared by Mum’s Kitchen Catering. The children affected by the food poisoning were aged two to six. The school outsourced its food preparation to “enhance operational efficiency and ensure a consistent quality of food across the different centres”, said its senior operations manager Julia Teo.

It has suspended the caterer’s services pending the completion of investigations. Meals are, for the time being, being prepared at the individual schools. On Tuesday, the children had seafood spaghetti with marinara sauce for lunch, and the teachers had mee goreng, or fried noodles. The following day, up to half the children in some classes did not show up, and parents were calling the teachers to say their children were ill.

MOH and NEA conducted joint inspections at the caterer’s premises and found a dirty refrigerator door lining but did not uncover other lapses in the food preparation and storage areas. Mum’s Kitchen Catering has been instructed to disinfect its premises and all items used in the preparation and storage of food. Ms Teo said all parents had been told to monitor their children’s health and to inform the principal if their children came down with symptoms such as prolonged vomiting, diarrhoea or fever.

The operations manager of the catering company, Mr Darren Toh, said the centralised kitchen in Bedok North was sterilised yesterday, and a committee has been set up to look into what happened. He said the lunch menu is prepared by 9.30am daily and delivered in four vehicles within the hour to Pat’s Schoolhouse centres. The caterer has been supplying food to Pat’s Schoolhouse since last July. Mr Toh said: “We are doing our checks now and will find out what happened.” He said the same ingredients also went into the food served to the caterer’s other clients – and no one elsewhere has fallen ill.

When The Straits Times visited the Pat’s Schoolhouse centre in Lim Ah Pin Road yesterday, two children who appeared ill were waiting for their family members to take them home. Worried parents said yesterday that they were taking no chances. Mrs Y.H. Lee, 39, a magazine designer, took her three-year-old daughter Yong Yong, who had a 40 deg C fever, to the emergency department at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital yesterday evening. The girl had also vomited four times. “She kept throwing up every time she ate and is not drinking much at all,” said Mrs Lee.

Another parent, Mrs Eleen Boey, 43, who owns her own business, has two children in Pat’s Schoolhouse in Lim Ah Pin Road. Her daughter Jun Xin, aged six and in Kindergarten 2, is down with food poisoning, but her son Jun Wei, a year younger, seems unaffected. Jun Xin had fever and vomited twice on Wednesday and twice in the middle of the night. She developed diarrhoea yesterday. “Her teacher told me half the class was down. I don’t think she ate a lot of the spaghetti because she doesn’t really like Western food. So I hope she’ll recover soon,” said Mrs Boey. Calling for a thorough investigation into the cause of the food poisoning, she added: “I hope it’s a one-off case. I’m concerned, but more importantly, it’s what the school does about it. I hope there will be regular checks on caterers and into hygiene issues.”

Doctors advised parents to seek medical help if their children’s symptoms become severe, for instance, if they feel severe pain, are unable to keep food or drinks down, pass blood in their stools or are lethargic. Dr Terence Tan, 42, a paediatrician at Mount Alvernia Hospital, said children tend to be worse hit because they dehydrate faster. Dehydration is the main problem, so if they are hospitalised, it is usually so they can be put on an intravenous drip to keep them hydrated. This is necessary if the diarrhoea or vomiting is very bad, he said.

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