Friday, April 10, 2009

Mass Food Poisoning Proves Hawker Centers Have Room For Improvement

Aside from the deadly L'aquila earthquake, the Geylang mass food poisoning incident is also another terrible news that we are forced to bear. The death toll may not be as high or the damage not as extensive as that of L'aquila's but there's reason to be concerned — with two deaths, a comatose patient, one miscarriage and dozens of others affected, it's Singapore's worst case of food poisoning yet.

As of this writing, a certain type of bacteria has been identified as the possible cause of the outbreak. But further investigations are underway.

I am a hawker center customer although I must confess I have avoided eating there as much as I could since early last year. Don't get me wrong, there are compelling reasons to enjoy dining in hawker centers. Take hawker center L for instance, I like it for its variety of choices. Also, a number of stalls serve real good food, not to mention they give good value for my money. But then, there are also substantial reasons to trade good, inexpensive food for equally good but more costly grubs. The huge number of patrons and the uncomfortable heat during day time are part of the hawker experience and I'm not referring to them. I'm talking about cleanliness or the lack thereof.

Just a few months ago, when I entered hawker center L at around 1:00 p.m., it was impossible for me to miss the the stink of garbage. The reason being, garbage is consolidated or taken in instead of being taken out. You'd see the uncles and the aunties wheeling the huge, green trash bins in and displaying them in the middle. It wasn't the best way to get customers to fast.

What about utensils? As much as possible, I go for plastic spoons when eating in food centers because it's easy to see that the dishwashers are not taking their jobs seriously. Even then, the plastic spoons and forks are not always clean. Friends and I have once tried to count the number of tries we had to take before we are successful in picking out clean spoon and forks or even the number of times the aunties and the uncles hand out the spoons properly, holding them by the handles. The results were frustrating. I'm bound to try it again and post the results here.

I have mentioned in a previous post, Of The Best And Worst Singaporean Habits, about what I termed as the irresponsible handling of food:
Now this isn't funny or annoying. It's sad.

I find it hard to believe that some things I consider common sense need to be taught. For instance, when a waiter brings your soup or desert, you wouldn’t expect to see his thumb dipped inside to provide additional flavor, right? What about when serving drinks and putting cups on the tray? Being able to hold several at once may seem like a neat trick but I certainly don’t appreciate it if the fingers go into the cup and touch the ice. Same goes for handing off straws, spoons and forks; shouldn’t the food server know by instinct that he shouldn’t touching the parts that go into the mouth?

Call me finicky or kiasu (I've learned that word late last year), but I believe good service means not taking such things for granted. Educating our food handlers will certainly lessen the risk of spreading disease. But how?
I have the same observations in my recent visits.

If it were a comedy show, this scene might have looked funny:
    1. Customer orders two slices of papaya and asks for food handler to slice it even further into smaller pieces.

    2. Food handler puts on a plastic glove on her left hand and takes two slices of papaya from the cold storage using the same hand.

    3. Customer sees this and appreciates the food handler's sanitary practice.

    4. Food handler slices the papaya into smaller pieces.

    5. Customer asks how much and reaches into his wallet to get a $5 bill.

    6. Food handler answers and extends her left hand, gloves on, to receive the cash.

    7. Customer hands his money hesitantly and with great disbelief.

    7. Food handler opens the cash drawer, puts in the $5 bill and takes coins to give as change to the customer.

    8. Customer receives his change and walks away nodding his head.
It's not funny at all when it happens in real life. It happened to me. I should have told the food handler that the plastic glove wasn't supposed to be used to keep her hands clean.

The scary thing about unsanitary practices is that they're contagious and later on become the rule rather than the exception. There was a Filipino stall in the same place, hawker center L, that colleagues and I would frequently buy food from especially when it was new. During a recent visit, the same food handler was not as careful when handing out dishes. Her thumb went as deep as a centimeter into the sauce. She did it to me, the person ahead of me and the one following me. Three strikes. She must have observed this was considered normal practice in some neighboring stalls.

All the above examples are those that our senses can easily detect. What about those that we don't see, smell or even taste? Shouldn't we be even more worried about them?

Still, I don't think it's hopeless and I have an example from real life to base this conclusion from than merely saying "This is Singapore!" There was this small cafeteria chain that operated in a few corporate offices. In one of their branches, we regularly observed their staff following unsanitary practices. Taking the cue from a huge sign that said something like "for feedback and suggestions, to:", we sent an e-mail detailing our observations. We got a reply the day after sending out the e-mail and immediately noticed the change.

I often hear that Singapore has an obsession with being the best or being #1. There's no use denying there's room for improvement. Maybe it's high time Singapore puts having the best food centers not only in terms of taste but also in terms of cleanliness among its to-best list.


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At April 28, 2009 at 9:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The hawker centers also need to refine their attitudes towards costumers. The economic downturn means that people are going to eat at hawker centers rather then the slightly more expensive food courts. Since then I have seen an obvious change in some of the more popular stores. There was this chicken store I went to during lunch break, queued as i should. when it was my turn the person taking orders actually told me to wait so she can take the order of the guy behind me. Have it come to a stage where they can choose costumers instead of having the costumer choose them?


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