I am very concerned over what seems to be a lack of efficient procedures in place to avert mass public health tragedies like the recent Geylang Serai rojak stall food poisoning incident.
Three lives have been lost (including one unborn baby), and 146 people have been affected by the food contamination, 48 of whom were hospitalised.
CNA reported that stall patrons started to fall sick between April 2nd (Thu) and 4th (Sat) with food poisoning symptoms such as severe abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhoea. However it was only at 8 am on Sat April 4th that officials from the National Environment Agency (NEA) arrived to shut down the stall.
In another CNA report, a 44-year old woman said she and her mother stopped at the rojak stall for lunch on Friday, and less than six hours later, both women were vomiting and had stomach cramps so severe an ambulance rushed them to Changi General Hospital (CGH). They said it was “mayhem” there and that “there was a huge crowd, many of them holding their stomachs and appearing in pain… I asked around whether they also ate rojak from that stall. They all said yes.”
The woman who miscarried had eaten at the stall on Friday afternoon. She said the rojak smelled unusual, but carried on eating it.
Why did it take so long for NEA to shut down the stall? If people started to fall sick on Thursday, why was the stall allowed to remain open for the entire Friday?
The NEA graded the stall’s hygiene with a “C” grade back in December. While I do not expect NEA officers to check on the stall every day, given the barely passing grade the stall achieved, I feel it deserved tighter scrutiny from health officials.
One 54-year old housewife said that “environment in the centre (Geylang Serai temporary market) is not very clean. Sometimes there is rubbish around and it is very near to the wet market.”
More importantly, surely there should have been a more efficient mechanism to alert NEA of a stall selling contaminated food. Did the doctors that the victims visited on Thursday report the food poisoning cases to NEA immediately after attending to their patients? Is there even a mechanism to do so?
This serves as a lesson that all cases of food poisoning should be taken very seriously. Victims of food poisoning will almost always know the source of their infection. If doctors are required by law to inform the Ministry of Health when they diagnose infectious diseases like SARS, they should also be required to report any cases of food poisoning to the NEA immediately.
The moment a report is made, NEA officers should be activated immediately to investigate the stall or restaurant, and shut it down if necessary to prevent further cases of poisoning. While this could be quite a strain on resources, it is a necessary investment in the interest of public health.
At the same time, there should be an efficient way for consumers to report contaminated food. Not all food poisoning victims visit doctors, and many would detect bad food from its smell before consuming it. There should be a website or hotline for people to report such incidences easily. A general number or website feedback form does not really suffice, given the urgency in which such reports must be acted upon.
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Headline picture from Straits Times.