More than 400 people had food poisoning in three separate incidents in November. According to reports on the food poisoning cases to date, the NEA has been working with the Ministry of Health and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority to investigate the multiple cases of gastroenteritis. But why this spate, and what should folks who are ordering and consuming catered food be aware about before diving into those bento boxes and pre-packed meals?
We spoke to nutritionist Jaclyn Reutens of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants, who shared her thoughts on these food poisoning and catered food issues below.
Why do you think this has happened- does our climate have anything to do with this? Or the weather and temperature, perhaps? Is food not keeping as well during rainy periods, or deliveries not as prompt etc?
It is plausible that climate might have something to do with it since we live in a tropical humid climate. 5 to 60 deg Celsius is the danger zone for foodborne bacteria to thrive and multiply. Above 60 deg Celsius, most pathogens are killed. Nonetheless, it still less likely this is the cause as there are many more likely factors.
Pathogens can be present in cooked and cooled foods and if given time, it can grow and multiply and reach numbers that can make people sick. Which means that if you prepare the foods improperly but stored in correct temperatures, pathogens can still grow slowly.
Pathogens such as salmonella, camphyloacter and E. coli are harmful even in small numbers. Food handlers are usually the main cause of transmissions and usually from their hands. Ready-to-eat food is the most dangerous as no further heat treatment is rendered to it before consumption, hence the time from preparation to consumption is crucial. Left out too long and in temperatures from 5-60 deg celsiud increases the risk of foodborne pathogens to multiply.
Catered Food – what are some of the potential danger spots in the whole production process that have higher risk of food poisoning-related bacteria being introduced?
There are so many entry where pathogens can be introduced and multiply. Some of the more common ones are:
· Receiving goods and storage. Inadequate refrigeration. If chilled foods are received and not stored below 5 deg Celsius. That is already the starting point for bacterial growth.
· Storage of raw foods over fruits and vegetables and the meat juices drip on salad leaves and fruit that most likely will not undergo any heat treatment.
· Cross contamination. Use of chopping boards for raw and cooked foods. Where the blood of raw meats get into contact with cooked foods, which will not undergo another heat treatment.
· Poor personal hygiene by food handlers: If food handlers do not wear gloves, go to the washroom and not wash their hands adequately, they carry bacteria back to the kitchen. Wearing aprons to the washrooms, even if they wash their hands properly, the apron may have gotten into contact with faeces. Handlers who are sick with the norovirus also transmit the virus to foods from just a single droplet.
· Food prepared several hours before serving and left to sit in the danger zone temperature.
· Inadequate heat treatment. Time temperature control has to be achieved to kill all pathogens. E.g beef must be cooked for at least 3 min at 64 deg Celsius for all microbes to be killed. Chicken to be at least cooked at 74 deg Celsius for 15 seconds.
· Transportation of food: if the storage compartment is not at the correct temperature, bacteria will also start to multiply.
3) how can people who are going to eat a prepacked catered food meal check if their meal is still safe for consumption?
· Check the ‘Consume by’ time stamp on the food. It is an NEA requirement for NEA licensed caterers.
· While an ‘off-smell’ is not always present in foods that are high risk, you should report any foods that smell sourish or have an ‘off-smell’.
· Look for odd-coloured foods such as mouldy rice.
What types of catered food are more high risk than others when it comes to food poisoning, that folks might want to leave off their home party menus for the time being?
· Potentially hazardous foods are of animal origin; meat, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish or poultry. (which means we have nothing left to order that is safe!)
· Moist, protein rich foods such as chicken, fish, beef, pork, shellfish are good potential sources of bacterial growth. Gravies also encourages growth because they need water/moisture.
· Pastries with meat or cream, partially cooked eggs also are breeding grounds for bacteria.
· Bacteria do not like acidic or salted foods. Therefore lemon juice, vinegar and salt reduces risks. Preserved or salted foods such as salted eggs, smoked or salted fish, pickled vegetables.
· If you are planning to cater food for your guests, you should try to avoid raw foods such as sashimi/sushi, raw oysters in shell, raw eggs recipes such as egg nog or poached eggs, medium rare or rare hamburgers. Safer foods would be ‘drier’ foods like bread, biscuits. Foods with high fat, high sugar content such as jam and chocolate. But this is so limiting.
While we have an increase in food poisoning cases from catered set meals, there are much more catered meals served daily that are uneventful. Caterers should recheck their hazardous critical control points in their food production to ensure food-safety delicious meals are enjoyed by their customer.
By Kelvin Tan, Editor for Men’s Health Singapore.