As old buildings crumble or are torn down to make way for new development, Ipoh is rapidly losing any potential appeal it may have for tourism as the ‘historical city that tin built’. Only in one area does it hold its own in tourism potential and that is in its reputation for superlative food. As a foodie haven, tourists come in droves, whether it is by the bus loads from Singapore, or day trippers driving in from Kuala Lumpur and all over the Peninsula, to sample and buy back the food for which Ipoh is justifiably famous.
Visitors eagerly seek out ‘Hor Fun’ (noodles), ‘Nga Choi Kai’ (bean sprouts chicken), curry mee, Tanjung Tualang’s freshwater prawns or ‘Udang Gallah’, Mee Rebus, ‘Tau Foo Fah’ (soya bean curd), ‘Hiong Piah’ biscuits, white coffee, pomelo, groundnuts and jostle for seats for morning Dim Sum.
As a tourist attraction, Ipoh and its surroundings have failed as the city’s past glories are slowly fading away. Though Malaysia is now ranked ninth in the world for tourist arrivals, Ipoh benefits very little as it’s potential as a tourist attraction is still far from being developed, and those who come are just here for the food.
How Hygienic and Safe?
Fearing that its reputation as a food haven may one day be threatened, Ipoh Echo is examining the environment under which food is being prepared and cooked by hawkers and restaurants, and the effectiveness of health enforcement. Our concern is how hygienic and safe is the food in the restaurants, coffee-shops, food courts and roadside stalls, and are we doing enough to ensure that food consumed in the city are safe from disease and food poisoning?
Loh See Fun’s Mass Food Poisoning
The series of food poison-ing cases experienced in the city and it’s outskirts in October, 1988, must be remembered by all those responsible for health and operators of food outlets.
In the incident, 13 children between the ages of two to 11 died after consuming ‘Loh See Fun’ (rat’s tail shaped noodle) that was contaminated with boric acid and aflatoxin which came from one supplier.
The city cannot afford a similar outbreak of mass food poisoning, which will only damage its reputation as a food haven and scare away visitors. Food operators and health enforcement agencies need to stringently observe measures to ensure food prepared and consumed are hygienic and safe.
City Council’s Strict Guidelines
A. Jeyaraj spoke to the city council’s health department chief Mohd Alias Kama-ruddin on the action taken to control leptospirosis (a disease associated with rat droppings) in Ipoh. He reports that all food handlers must take a Typhoid injection every three years and also attend a health course before being issued a licence. The food handlers also need to abide by the council’s strict guidelines which have been incorporated with directives from the Health Ministry and Ministry of Local Government.
Visual inspection of food outlets is done on a daily basis; however each hawker’s stall is inspected at least twice a year. A general inspection is done to ensure that the workers wear proper attire, personal hygiene of food handlers and general cleanliness of their stalls.
During evaluation inspection, the handling and storage of raw ingredients, preparation of food, cooking method, cooked food, display of cooked food, cleaning of utensils and method of disposal of waste are checked. Raw and cooked food samples are sent for laboratory analysis against contamination and potential source of food poisoning under the Food Act and Regulations..
Regular Inspection of Food Outlets
The enforcement officers from the Hawkers’ Unit have inspected about 2,000 stalls in food courts, pasar malam and hawker centres so far this year, and 733 compounds were issued and fines amounting to RM77,400 were collected and 152 warning letters were issued against those who had failed to comply with the regulations.
The Food Unit looks after the restaurants, food manufacturers, supermarkets, grocery stores selling food, convenient stores in commercial buildings and school canteens. There are about 3,500 premises to be inspected of which 1,500 are eating shops.
Food premises are inspected quarterly and other outlets at least once a year. Up until August, 510 compounds were issued and RM86,400 in fines were collected and 203 warning notices were issued.
Grading of eateries
Apart from the stringent inspections, the council’s health department also carries out evaluation of eateries for grading purposes every three months and for this year 891 premises were evaluated. Evaluation is also carried out on toilets, kitchen, storage, refrigeration, washing area, dining area and waste disposal. The premises must have a cleaning schedule.
The Vector Unit is specifically studying the rat problem in the wet markets and food courts. The study is in its final stages .
Food Outlet Operators
James Cough and Rosli Mansor set out to interview food outlet operators to find out how sincere they are about hygiene and safe food, as well as their knowledge and practice of safe food handling procedures.
Generally, those interviewed said they were aware of the need for cleanliness in their daily operation and with the frequent surprise checks by health officials, they cannot let their guard down and therefore must maintain cleanliness all the time.
The proprietor of Family Cafe located at Taman Permai, Christine Newton-Yee said, “Handling food in a hygienic manner and keeping one’s outlet clean is to be expected at any food outlet”. Christine had attended the MBI course before opening the Cafe and stated these basic requirements were impressed upon her during the briefing.
Employee at a food outlet Nor Ismawati Mat Isa said cleanliness is their top priority. “We’ve been told by our employer that we cannot compromise cleanliness as the health and safety of our customers are very important,” she said.
To Each His Own
While every effort have been taken to ensure that food is safe and served under hygienic conditions, political constraints have resulted in street food stalls which were once located in shops and food courts being allowed back on the roadsides at unsuitable rat-infested locations, with no running water for cleaning.
It is therefore left to those planning to eat out to make their own decisions as to whether to patronise food stalls in coffee-shops and food-courts or to eat at roadside stalls? However, knowing Malaysians’ eating habits, their choice is often not based on conducive environment but rather on following their taste buds at the sacrifice of hygiene factors.