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Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting tougher with eateries

IN PARLIAMENT

More hygiene checks, bigger fines expected

Leong Wee Keat, weekeat@mediacorp.com.sg

THE Government will wield a bigger stick to ensure there won't be a repeat of last month's mass food poisoning, which left two dead and 152 ill.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament that the National Environment Agency (NEA) will step up inspection of food establishments and raise the penalties for lapses.

From next April, the agency will halve the ratio of food establishments inspected from 800 to 400 per officer. These businesses will also be inspected between four to eight times a year, up from the current three to six.

Stalls at hawker centres and markets, however, will see more of these checks. Centres will be visited twice a week, up from once every seven days, while individual hawker stalls will be inspected once every two weeks, instead of the current once every six to eight weeks.

Those who flout hygiene standards will face stiffer fines as the minimum penalty will be doubled to $200, while a $100 incremental fine will also be introduced to differentiate between minor, serious and major offences.

Offenders will be required to attend and pass a food hygiene course upon suspension. Repeat offenders will be charged in court. The revised penalty will come into force next January.

Last month, Indian rojak seller Sheik Allaudin Mohideen was suspended following a bout of alleged mass food poisoning traced to his stall in Geylang Serai temporary market. A rodent infestation, not related to the food poisoning, was also found in the incident's aftermath.

To tackle hygiene issues at temporary markets and food centres, Dr Yaccob said the NEA will issue guidelines specifying the expected standard of cleanliness and upkeep. A licence will also be issued for the operation of a temporary market or food centre with effect from Monday.

Market operators to be responsible for lapses

The NEA will also require operators of temporary markets or food centres to be a registered society or professional managing agent to ensure clearer accountability.

Calling this "unfair", MP Inderjit Singh questioned if "NEA is trying to pass the buck", adding: "Most of the markets in our constituencies are not run by officially registered organisations. So, (it) looks like the CCCs (Citizens Consultative Committees) and town councils will have to bear this responsibility."

In response, Dr Yaccob pointed out that temporary markets and food centres are built on the request of grassroot organisations. There had been 35 temporary markets being managed by CCCs and town councils.

"It does not mean NEA will not be responsible. We will still be enforcing hygiene standards. We will still go down and check to ensure there are no lapses. But someone has got to be responsible."

Dr Yaccob acknowledged there was a lapse on NEA's part in issuing grading decals to foodstalls at the Geylang Serai temporary market. It has since tightened procedures and all grading decals issued will now be valid for a year. Following reassessment, temporary grading decals will be issued on the spot.

Hawker Nur Muhammad raised concerns whether he would "always be under scrutiny" when the new rules kick in.

Although the NEA will deploy more inspectors, Dr Yaccob stressed that "they cannot be everywhere all the time".

He urged food establishments to play their part in maintaining standards of hygiene.

Canteens, food courts and coffeeshops would also be required soon to have at least one employee trained as a food hygiene officer to conduct daily checks.

The NEA would also require all food handlers to undergo a refresher course in food hygiene once every three years.

From TODAYOnline.com; see the source article here.


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