Effectively immediately, establishments involved in food poisoning incidents in Singapore face stronger penalties, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Agri Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).

Financial amounts will be increased and more food-operator offenders, especially those who commit serious hygiene offenses, will be prosecuted in court under the relevant legislation.

These include the Environment Public Health (Food Hygiene) Regulations, the Sale of Food Act, and/or the Environment Public Health Act, which carries a maximum fine of SGD $10,000 (U.S. $7,300) for a first offense. The penalty for a repeat breach is fine of SGD $20,000 (U.S. $14,600) or imprisonment for three months or both. NEA and AVA will also press for deterrent sentences to be imposed by the court.

NEA and AVA said they will take a serious view of any hygiene lapses that may directly or indirectly result in food poisoning incidents. Following recent outbreaks, the authorities will continue to place implicated premises under surveillance and work with them to improve food hygiene practices.

The two agencies and the Ministry of Health (MOH), recently completed investigations into separate gastroenteritis incidents traced to Mandarin Orchard Hotel, FoodTalks Caterer and Manufacturer, and Tung Lok Millennium Pte Ltd.

Based on epidemiological findings, patient symptoms and laboratory results, there were no links between the three events, or to the Salmonella outbreak traced to Spize Restaurant at River Valley Road that sickened 82 people with 47 hospitalizations and one death.

As of Dec. 13, 315 cases were reported to have developed gastroenteritis symptoms after attending five separate events in the Grand Ballroom at Mandarin Orchard Hotel between Dec. 1 and 3, and 14 cases were hospitalized.

Interviews with the staff of the hotel revealed there was improper cleaning of vomit in the Grand Ballroom and banquet servers had continued to work while ill. Norovirus was detected from stool samples collected from five cases, three food handlers and 28 service staff, including banquet servers who continued working while ill.

Environmental swabs from the Grand Ballroom also found norovirus from environmental surfaces such as carpet, tables, chairs, unused table cloths, cutlery and drinking glasses. Fecal coliforms were detected in a food sample and Bacillus cereus from various environmental swabs, such as the surfaces of utensils and door handles.

A total of 131 cases developed gastroenteritis symptoms after consuming food prepared by FoodTalks Caterer and Manufacturer at Bedok North during a pre-school day camp on Nov. 26. No-one required hospitalization.

An inspection by MOH, NEA and AVA found several hygiene lapses and poor kitchen habits. These included lack of proper segregation between raw and ready-to-eat food in the same chiller compartment, use of the same preparation table for raw and RTE food items, evidence of cockroach infestation, and preparation of RTE food one to two days before consumption.

While the causative agent could not be identified, the short incubation period from food consumption to development of symptoms, and the predominant symptom of vomiting, suggested the outbreak was likely due to ingestion of toxins produced by bacteria in the food.

A total of 190 people developed gastroenteritis symptoms after consuming food prepared by Tung Lok Millennium Pte Ltd during an event held between Nov. 19 and 21. No-one was hospitalized.

During an inspection several hygiene lapses and poor kitchen habits were identified, including no provision of soap for handwashing and improper use of ice dispensing utensil for ready-to-eat ice.

An environmental swab from the bento packing table tested positive for Bacillus cereus. As most cases had recovered by the time MOH was informed of the outbreak, stool samples were not available for analysis to identify the causative agent.

NEA has programs to help operators uphold good and consistent hygiene practices including the Food Hygiene Officer (FHO) scheme for food courts, canteens, caterers and larger restaurants.

The role and accountability of the FHO is to be tightened. If the license of a food site is suspended, all its Food Hygiene Officers must go for retraining and pass a course. A suspended food establishment must have a trained and qualified FHO before lifting of the penalty will be considered.

The NEA and AVA inspect 40,700 food establishments in Singapore throughout the year.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)