SINGAPORE: Salmonella bacteria found at a Spize outlet was behind a mass food poisoning incident that left more than 80 people ill and caused dozens to be hospitalised, the authorities said on Friday (Dec 7).
The bacteria was found in both raw and ready-to-eat food at the restaurant's River Valley outlet – in samples of belacan egg fried rice, sambal belacan, raw chicken samples and kangkong (water spinach) and uncooked rice.
Salmonella was also found on the door handle of a cold room, the Ministry of Health, National Environment Agency (NEA) and Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said at a joint media briefing.
Faecal coliforms were also detected in samples of belacan egg fried rice, as well as on a chopping board and knife used for ready-to-eat food.
Investigations found that the outbreak of salmonella gastroenteritis was “unusually severe”, suggesting that the food was likely to be heavily contaminated, the agencies said.
The operating licence of Spize River Valley will be terminated with immediate effect, they said.
The other Spize restaurants – located at Bedok and Rifle Range Road – have been allowed to continue operating after checks by NEA found no evidence to link the salmonella outbreak to these outlets.
Seven food poisoning incidents were found to be linked to Spize River Valley, involving 82 people who had eaten food from the outlet between Nov 6 and 9. A total of 47 people were hospitalised.
The outlet was suspended on Nov 9 after the authorities found several hygiene lapses, including leaving ready-to-eat food uncovered in a chiller, not providing soap for hand-washing (the soap dispenser was faulty) and slotting knives for preparing ready-to-eat food in a gap between food preparation tables.
Mr Fadli Saleh, an auxiliary police officer with ground-handling firm SATS, was one of those hospitalised after consuming food supplied by the restaurant. He died on Nov 14. The cause of death is pending and it has been classified as a coroner's case.
On the same day, the authorities conducted a second joint inspection of the restaurant, where they discovered "severe irregularities". There were seven unregistered food handlers, food had been prepared outside the licensed kitchen area and food handlers had "poor personal hygiene and food preparation practices", they said.
They found that eggs that were supposed to be discarded after the suspension order had been dispatched to the Spize outlet at Temasek Club for use.
Unlabelled ready-to-eat salted fish, chicken floss and fish crackers were also found despite the restaurant having been ordered to discard these items.
NO MINIMUM DUTY OF CARE
There was no minimum duty of care at the restaurant to ensure meals were prepared safely, NEA's director-general of environmental public health Derek Ho said, adding this is "really unbecoming" of operators.
"We are so angry and upset about this," he said.
Mr Ho said the outlet's operator will be taken to court for the "egregious" lapses.
Mr Ho added that the last inspection of the River Valley outlet was in October, and the only previous lapse that was found at the restaurant was minor – not having enough covers for rubbish bins. It was issued a warning for that.
Spize co-owner Haresh Sabnani said on Friday that the company is conducting its own investigation into the lapses at the River Valley outlet.
As for the other outlets, he said: "We have engaged the services of a food hygiene consultant to identify any hygiene issues and to resolve them."
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There was no record of what time the food in the incidents was prepared, but Mr Ho said that for large orders, the outlet had to prepare all the food in advance.
This could contribute to the bacteria having a chance to grow and multiply, he said.
When asked about caterers who take on larger orders than they can handle in this way and how to limit this practice, Mr Ho said that the operator is best-placed with this knowledge.
"If you can't (ensure the food is safe) and you are pushing the boundary and you are trying to cut corners, you're just trying to profiteer from it, you're just trying to make a fast buck – then I will say that you have misjudged, you have failed in your duty of care," he said.
He also said that consumers can check catering companies' hygiene ratings and history of demerit points on the NEA app.
SPATE OF OTHER FOOD POISONING CASES
The update from the agencies comes amid other large-scale incidents of food poisoning. Most recently, banquet operations at Mandarin Orchard Singapore's main ballroom were suspended after 175 people fell ill with food poisoning and nine were hospitalised.
On Nov 23, 190 people fell ill with symptoms of gastroenteritis after consuming food prepared by restaurant group TungLok's catering arm.
On Nov 26, more than 130 students and teachers fell ill after consuming food prepared by FoodTalks Caterer and Manufacturer while attending a children's camp.
The agencies did not comment on the other investigations which are ongoing.
NEA and AVA will step up checks on food establishments during the festive season, they said. NEA will also engage representatives from the Association of Catering Professionals Singapore and the Restaurant Association of Singapore about the importance of food hygiene and safety.