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NEA has not sufficiently answered broader concerns of hygiene and cleanliness standards. Khairulanwar Zaini.

154 casualties. 48 hospitalized. 2 deaths. 122 rats. All the rojak man’s fault?

Khairulanwar Zaini

While the mass food poisoning may be the fault of an errant individual stall owner, the dirty state of the market reflects a worrying systemic failure on the part of the NEA and the Geylang Serai Temporary Market Management Committee.

As the nation tries to grapple with the physical cost of the tragic mass food poisoning incident, preliminary investigations by the Ministry of Health have revealed that the outbreak is "most likely due to cross-contamination of rojak and raw seafood ingredients harbouring the (Vibrio parahaemolyticus) bacteria". There have also been questions raised about the hygiene regime of the Geylang Serai temporary market - not least underscored by the discovery of 122 rats during the spring-cleaning efforts recently.

While it is convenient to isolate and attribute this tragedy to Mr Sheik Allaudin Mohideen, the rojak stall owner, this perspective does not sufficiently answer broader concerns of hygiene and cleanliness standards.

An NEA official was reported by the Today newspaper to have berated the stall owners attending a hygiene course conducted last Thursday, while Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, condemned the events as "totally unacceptable” and that it was “outrageous that this has happened”. The minister promised to hold those responsible accountable.

Strong sentiments indeed, but his counterpart in the Health Ministry, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, has raised a more germane concern about the overall cleanliness standard having "dropped to maybe 5/10 or worse".

This begs the question: doesn’t NEA have a major part to play in maintaining the “overall cleanliness standard?”

Responsibility – Yaacob and 122 rats

There are essentially two separate, albeit overlapping, issues that have been conveniently conflated by the authorities: the hygiene standard of individual stalls, and the cleanliness of the temporary market.

Stall owners who are diffident towards the hygiene standards of their own stalls face strong financial disincentives in fines that may be imposed, and the loss of potential customers; most stall owners interviewed recognize their "individual responsibility" in maintainng hygiene standards, given that their source of income and livelihood is on the line. Hence, the inevitable few errant stall owners should not tar the efforts of the majority, and NEA also has some responsibility in its checks to detect these instances of non-compliance.

However, the responsibility in ensuring that the overall cleanliness of the market should fall squarely on NEA. Despite Dr Yaacob assurance of a 'sound regime' to the Straits Times, the fiasco of 122 rats suggests a failure on the part of NEA to intervene and nip an incipient safety threat in the bud.

As much as stall owners should be held responsible for any hygiene lapses, surely NEA is also culpable in its failure to ensure a clean market environment at Geylang Serai.

The temporary market houses both the hawker and wet market stalls in close vicinity, a conducive environment to encourage the prevalence of pests.

These circumstances might be understandable considering the market was meant to be temporary; however there was an appalling lack of effort to mitigate this potential threat to cleanliness: in the entire 3 years since its establishment, there were no spring-cleaning effort held until last Wednesday and Thursday – after the food poisoning happened.

The notable absence of regular clean-up efforts raises questions for the Geylang Serai Temporary Market Management Committee to answer: why was there only one spring-cleaning held after three years of operation, and that taking place only two months before the planned move to the new Geylang Serai market?

Taking into consideration that such clean-up efforts take place once every two months at the old Geylang Serai market, according to a vegetable stall owner who have worked at both locations, it seems that the Management Committee has been astoundingly complacent towards the need to maintain the cleanliness condition of its market.

And more striking is how NEA reacted in the catastrophe’s wake– passing the buck to respective local management committees of each market. Without ensuring these cleanups happen, NEA’s tough stance in maintaining the hygiene and cleanliness standards are nothing but sanctimonious words.

The NEA is the only agency with the mandate to enforce these standards, and adopting a laissez-faire approach and devolving its authority to the discretion of individual management committees without any oversight makes a mockery of the 'sound regime' that Dr Yaacob has been talking about.

One stallholder told the ST that huge rats run around the market regularly, playing like “Tom and Jerry”. Is NEA playing a Tom and Jerry hide-and-seek game with its responsibility?

A tale of 122 rats

The 122 rats caught in the spring-cleaning effort constitute a significant failure in the hygiene management of the market, and it would be disproportionate to attribute the presence of the rats to the individual stall owners since it concerns the conditions of the entire temporary market. It would only be fair for either the management committee and NEA to answer for the prevalence of these pests, as with any stall owner who has committed hygiene lapses.

A blame game is never prudent, particularly in crises of confidence such as this. The NEA, in its strong reprobations to the stall owners, has pinned the blame of the entire affair on the stall owners - but the lack of oversight and its detachment from the management of the markets points to the agency's culpability of this episode.

While the mass food poisoning may be the fault of an errant individual stall owner, the dirty state of the market reflects a worrying systemic failure in the part of NEA and the Geylang Serai Temporary Market Management Committee. This incident however should prompt for a soul-searching exercise at the NEA and the respective local management committees of the various markets and food establishments to review the execution and enforcement of safety standards, which has evidently failed at Geylang Serai.

Pinning the guilt alone on the individual lapses of a rojak seller, yet ignoring the systemic lapses that has allowed for 122 rats to fester (and this number are the ones caught - who can safely hazard that no rats have been left behind?) means that the 152 people who endured an uncomfortable week have suffered in vain. Leadership in matters like these are best provided by those in authority, and the public should expect a more stringent regime to ensure the cleanliness of our food establishments.

Editor’s note:

Do you know of pigeon or rat infestations at your favorite eating places? Take a photo and send it in to [email protected]

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