SINGAPORE: From late 2020, the existing food hygiene grading system for food retail establishments in Singapore will be replaced with a new scheme, the National Environment Agency (NEA) announced on Tuesday (Jun 19).
Under the new Food Hygiene Recognition Scheme, food establishments with at least two years of "strong track record" in hygiene will be awarded Bronze, Silver or Gold based on a set of criteria, NEA said in a media release.
Those without “major hygiene lapses” under NEA’s demerit point system for two years or more will receive a Bronze award. Lapses include failing to keep the premises clean or pests found in the premises.
Those without any such lapses for at least five years will receive a Silver award, and those who maintain their record for at least 10 years will get a Gold award.
Award holders will be given a decal to display at their premises. If an establishment commits any serious hygiene infringements or has been implicated in a food poisoning incident, the award may be subsequently downgraded.
EXISTING GRADING SYSTEM HAS “REACHED ITS LIMITS”: NEA
Explaining the rationale for the change, NEA’s director-general for environmental health Derek Ho said that the existing grading system, where operators receive an A, B, C or D grading, has “reached its limits”.
“Ninety-nine per cent of licensees have already reached an A or B grade, so it’s more difficult for consumers to distinguish the better performers from amongst this pool of licensed premises,” he said.
All NEA-licensed food retail establishments in Singapore are required to meet the necessary hygiene requirements to operate. This includes having the necessary infrastructure and trained expertise to ensure safe preparation, handling and sale of food.
Over and above these licensing requirements, they are currently graded A, B, C or D annually based on an assessment of the premises’ hygiene standards by NEA inspectors.
The existing grading system, which was first introduced in 1997, has “helped to raise the hygiene standards” of food retail establishments in Singapore, said NEA. For example, 99 per cent of licensees were graded A or B as of Dec 31 last year, compared to 77 per cent in 2006.
However, NEA pointed out that under the system, consumers may not know which operators have been more consistent in upholding hygiene standards as their track records are not factored in. Operators, regardless of their grades, would still end up with serious lapses, and could even be linked to food poisoning outbreaks.
Replacing the current grading system with the new scheme, said NEA, will encourage operators to practise good hygiene at all times, and be consistent with their efforts.
SOME FOOD OPERATORS CAN COME ON BOARD EARLY
To phase in the new scheme, those who currently hold an A grade – about 55 per cent of the approximately 36,000 licensed food establishments here – will be invited to apply for the new scheme on a voluntary basis from April 2019. Those which meet the criteria will be given the award decal for display, in place of the grading decal.
The new scheme will take effect fully from late 2020 for the rest of the food retail industry.
“All existing licensees will therefore have sufficient time to attain at least a Bronze award if they maintain a good track record henceforth,” said NEA.
New licensees will display a label indicating “Working towards excellent hygiene track record” which is valid for up to two years before NEA assesses their eligibility for a Bronze award.
NEED FOR CONSUMER EDUCATION, SO THEY KNOW A BRONZE DOESN’T EQUATE TO A ‘C’ GRADE
Operators Channel NewsAsia spoke to saw the benefits of the new system.
“It’s the next step to take,” said Mr Ryk Chew, who operates a rice dumpling stall at Amoy Street Food Centre. Pointing out the drawback in the existing system, he explained that stall operators could clean up their stall just before NEA inspectors visit.
“But who knows? Maybe after the grading’s done and they get an A grade, they don’t give a hoot about their hygiene in the ongoing daily operations,” he said. “But the new system puts all the stallholders on their toes, because if there’s any lapse, there goes their award, and it will take a long time for them to get it back to what it was.”
Co-founder of Waa Cow cafe Aaron Yeo likened the new system to that of an airline safety record. “Hygiene is like safety, where one minor misstep could spell disaster, so the new grading system has placed an emphasis on ensuring that consumers are able to make informed choices regarding which establishments treat hygiene seriously,” he said.
But he also stressed the importance of educating consumers about the new system, so that they would not perceive those with a Bronze award as being not as clean as those with a Gold.
“It takes a long time to get a Gold, so the public must first be able to appreciate those establishments that have gotten it, but also understand that those which have not yet gotten that rating are not necessarily unhygienic,” he said.
This was also a point made by owner of Kettle Pot cafe Terence Lieu. “Let’s say I’m a consumer, and I see a Bronze award at a new cafe,” he said. “It looks like a downgrade ... like the Bronze equates to a C rating in the current system.”
He suggested that both grading systems run concurrently, so that operators could, for example, display an A grade and a Bronze award. “After one or two years, they can phase out the grading system. So consumers can understand the change in the system.”
“Beside the rating, there should be an explanation, as well as the whole grading scale,” added Waa Cow’s Mr Yeo. “So consumers can see for themselves.”