The number of foodborne outbreaks over a six year period in Malaysia has remained stable, according to a study.

Researchers looked at the occurrence of food poisoning incidents within Pahang, from 2013 to 2018. Pahang is the largest state by area in Peninsular Malaysia and consists of 11 districts.

Malaysia’s high levels of food poisoning are partly attributed to its climate conditions and typical cuisine features. The hot and humid climate and the combination of various raw ingredients in typical Malaysian cuisine can enhance the likelihood of food contamination and spoilage, which often results in an increased incidence of food poisoning.

Data provided by the Malaysian Ministry of Health in 2014 showed that the incidence of food poisoning decreased in 2012 but increased slightly in 2013.

Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus
Results from the study, published in the Journal of Tropical Agricultural Science, showed that in Pahang, the number of reported episodes fluctuated from 2013 until 2018, with an average of 21 outbreaks occurring yearly.

Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus were the two most common agents implicated in food poisoning cases.

Bacillus cereus was behind eight outbreaks in 2018, Staphylococcus aureus caused six, five were due to Salmonella and two because of Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

In Malaysia, the staple food for a typical daily diet will mostly consist of rice. So, it is likely that contaminated rice serves as a vehicle for the transmission of Bacillus cereus food poisoning in the country, found the study.

The most common locations where food poisoning was reported were public schools, with the highest number of cases in the boarding school kitchen, followed by school canteens. Communal kitchens in boarding schools are designed to store large amounts of raw materials for cooking.

Factors behind outbreaks
Poor pest control measures and the heightened risk of cross-contamination during food handling including transport and delivery of raw materials and cooked food, as well as inadequate control of the manufacturing process such as temperature control and storage conditions, were identified as critical factors contributing toward outbreaks.

Kuantan, the state capital, reported an exceptionally high number of incidents of food poisoning with 48 episodes during the six years, while Kuala Lipis had only one in 2016. A district with a larger population like Temerloh reported more food poisoning cases compared to others.

Food poisoning occurred mostly during the third and fourth quarters of the year. Scientists said this is probably because of the fact that climatic conditions in Kuantan are affected by the monsoon season, which lasts from November until January. Heavy rainfall can lead to flooding and could increase the risk of both foodborne and waterborne diseases occurring.

Researchers said findings can be used to introduce interventions to mitigate the risk of food poisoning and for safeguarding consumer health by strengthening food control, as well as foodborne disease surveillance systems to reduce the burden of food poisoning in the country.

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