Will Food Poisoning Ever End?

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By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Food Poisoning, ipoh echo editorialIncidence of food poisoning in Perak schools is on the rise. Based on a Perak Health Department report given to Ipoh Echo recently, the trend is on an upward swing from 37 cases in 2008 dipping somewhat to 28 in 2009, 26 in 2010 and 30 cases in 2011. Until August 28, the number of reported cases stands at 29.

The latest involved students of Sekolah Agama Bantuan Kerajaan Al-Imam Asy Syafiee in Jelapang. Fifty seven students aged between 13 to 17 years old were treated at the school while a school warden was admitted to the Ipoh General Hospital for observation. The victims had diarrhoea and were vomiting uncontrollably after consuming food prepared at the hostel kitchen for their breaking of fast on the evening of Thursday, August 2.

The cause of the poisoning, according to a media report released by Dato’ Dr Mah Hang Soon, Executive Councillor for Health, was chicken rice which was the main dish for the breaking of fast that fateful evening. The report says, “There are several contributing factors why the incidence occurred. The food was poorly stored. It was kept at room temperature and left uncovered for over 4 hours.”

The affected premise was closed immediately by the state health department. The canteen operator was told to clean the kitchen and mess hall. He and his staff were given on-the-spot instructions on food safety by health officers.

Actions by the state health department were commendable, to say the least. The fact that its officers were on the site soon after a report was lodged by the assistant medical officer of the Manjoi Government Clinic shows the department’s seriousness in addressing the problem head-on. However, one lingering question keeps bugging sceptics like me. Why does the menace continue to haunt our society, especially schoolchildren?

The major recipients of this gastro-intestinal scourge are students of the much-maligned religious schools, both government and private owned. Boarding schools, particularly, are on the extreme end of the health spectrum. Students from these schools bear the brunt of the bacteria known scientifically as “Bacillus Cereus and Staphylococcus”. Some are afflicted not once but several times.

Is there a long-term solution to food poisoning in schools? If the reasons are poorly prepared food and ill-trained food handlers, why can’t the problem be eradicated for good? I posed this question to the health department but no answers were forthcoming from the deputy director at the time of reporting.

For the first seven months of this year (January to July) a total of 10,837 premises were inspected in the state. They covered schools, restaurants, food courts, hawker stalls and factories. However, only two hundred and fifteen compound notices, with a face value of RM45,600, were issued. This amounts to barely 2 per cent of the number of inspections done.

What does this indicate? Has the department been thorough in its job? Is the standard of cleanliness above the mean point? Have stall and canteen operators become angels overnight? There are many unanswered questions looming ominously above us. Judging from what I have seen and experienced, the overall standards have remained stagnant for a long while. Just take a walk through some of Ipoh’s famous food courts – Hollywood, Woolley and the Bercham Food Station. You will appreciate my concern.

Incidentally, there are enough laws available in the Local Government Act 1976, the Food Act 1983 and the Prevention and Control of Infectious Disease Act 1988 to ensure food safety and to keep culprits in check. Are the laws being sparingly enforced for reasons best known to the authorities? My guess is as good as yours.