SINGAPORE: Whenever National Environment Agency (NEA) officers drop by for a surprise inspection, Lola’s Cafe co-founder June Tan gets a little jumpy.
“Every time they come, we are very worried that we didn’t do something right,” she told Channel NewsAsia. “I guess that shows the checks are pretty thorough.”
Officers open her fridges to check how food is stored, then inspect the fridge door edges for loose rubber tubing, which might indicate contamination.
They even check the ice machine for algae and ensure that the scoop is not left inside. “A lot of people don’t know, but ice machines are where a lot of bacteria builds up,” Ms Tan said.
On top of that, Ms Tan also has to show monthly pest control and grease trap maintenance reports. She then waits a few days before receiving her grade in the mail.
While Ms Tan is meticulous in the maintenance of her establishment's cleanliness, for some others, things can occasionally go wrong.
NEA hygiene inspections and grades have come under the spotlight following recent incidents involving some ‘A’-graded food establishments.
Earlier this month, the agency announced that it had suspended the Clarke Quay branch of popular hotpot restaurant HaiDiLao for two weeks. This came after the eatery was penalised for handling food with bare hands and selling unclean food.
Last month, the grades of Regent Singapore's banquet kitchen and the hotel’s Summer Palace restaurant were downgraded to "C" after dozens of patrons came down with food poisoning.
And out of the 134 food establishments suspended last year, 16 were "A"-rated, NEA records show.
Responding to queries from Channel NewsAsia, NEA said grades are awarded based on observations such as housekeeping and cleanliness, food hygiene and personal hygiene of food handlers.
“While the hygiene grade provides a general overview of the hygiene condition of the premises, operators are expected to observe good food hygiene practices consistently in their daily operations in order to achieve and maintain high hygiene standards,” it stated.
“Besides the grading assessment, NEA also conducts regular inspections, as well as ad-hoc inspections in response to public feedback or reports on food poisoning, to ensure that operators comply with the regulations.”
Last year alone, NEA conducted more than 82,000 spot checks on food retail establishments. Establishments get inspected at least twice a year, with their food shop licences and grades reviewed annually.
Channel NewsAsia understands that NEA is unable to provide details of how many of its officers carry out inspections, although one to two usually visit each establishment. It is also understood that the agency does not outsource the inspections.
Other establishment owners Channel NewsAsia spoke to maintained that the inspections were thorough, adding that officers spend an average of 15 minutes checking their premises.
“The officer will give us advice if something can be done better,” said RED Noodle and Bottle Bar owner Tan Zhi Wen. “They don’t just do it anyhow.”
Ms Karen Quek, who runs Chateraise at Changi City Point, said officers would climb ladders to inspect false ceilings and use torchlights to look behind fridges. “It’s a detailed check – not just one glance and go.”
“YOU CAN’T SIMPLY BE COMPLACENT”
So, how do "A"-graded establishments, which score 85 per cent or higher on hygiene standards, still manage to fall short?
Public Hygiene Council chairman Edward D’Silva said in an interview with Talking Point that even highly rated establishments make mistakes.
“You can have lapses from employees who may have missed out a process,” he suggested. “You can have a disgruntled employee who feels aggrieved and wants to make the establishment pay.”
Establishments can be suspended for up to four weeks if they chalk up 12 demerit points or more in a year, with serious offences like packing food with printed paper carrying six demerit points and a S$400 fine. Repeat offenders can get their licences cancelled as well.
Chateraise’s Ms Quek acknowledged that mistakes can occur with a breakdown in communication. “Sometimes, it’s actually due to miscommunication or under-communication that staff don’t follow accordingly,” she said.
A Bedok hawker stall owner, who only wanted to be known as Kris, said a “minor lapse of concentration” is all it takes. “You can’t simply be complacent,” he said. “People who consume your food will suffer as a result.”
This can come from simple things like using the same chopping board for raw and cooked food, or forgetting to wash your hands after handling raw produce, he added.
MORE ROBUST INSPECTIONS?
As it becomes clear that lapses do crop up, should NEA step up its inspections? Mr D'Silva doesn't think it would be practical.
It is impossible for NEA officers to be looking over the shoulder of every person working in food establishments, he said.
RED Noodle and Bottle Bar’s Mr Tan said he is satisfied with the frequency of the inspections, noting that an increase in checks might disrupt operations.
Mr Kris added that the current checks are strict enough. “They will not hesitate to fine you or give you demerit points," he stated.
Rather, said Ms Tan of Lola’s Cafe, the onus is on establishments to maintain hygiene standards between inspections.
She pointed to her establishment’s “very extensive” closing procedure that includes wiping the fridges and mopping the floor every night. “Without any checks, that’s basically what you need to do,” she said. “It’s ingrained in our behaviour.”
Likewise, staff at Ms Quek’s outlet abide by strict hygiene measures like tucking hair into a cap at all times and using different cleaning cloths for different sections. “If enough training is given to staff on the first day of their job, there will be minimum lapses,” she said.
“It really depends from establishment to establishment – how stringent their checks are, how competent their staff are and how they carry out their procedures,” Ms Tan added.
For Mr Tan, it is important that his establishment avoids suspensions, given the effect it will have on business. “We cannot afford to get ourselves in this sort of trouble,” he added.