MALAYSIANS must have stomachs of steel, Health Ministry’s Food Safety and Quality Control Division deputy director Ahmad Nadzri Sulaiman wryly muses.
“We can eat anywhere. We eat at dark, dirty restaurants and roadside stalls without running water. We eat by the drain, near rubbish dumps and next to toilets. Even when we see rats scuttling past and the cook handling food with his unwashed hands, we don’t bat an eyelid and just continue eating,” he says, lamenting Malaysians’ relaxed attitude towards food safety and hygiene.
Health Ministry figures, however, show that it is high time for Malaysians to rethink their eating habits – from January to September this year, a total of 9,777 cases in 397 food poisoning episodes were reported nationwide.
Over the past few years, an average 8,000 food poisoning cases are reported in Malaysia annually. (The highest record was in 2007 – 14,455 cases were reported.)
Notably, the official figures could only be the tip of the iceberg as cases of food poisoning usually go unreported unless they involve deaths.
“The risk of food-borne illness or food poisoning cannot be taken lightly as even if it does not result in death, the health effects can be permanent, especially among children,” Ahmad Nadzri adds.
Food-borne illness chart
In Australia, a young girl was left severely brain-damaged from salmonella poisoning after eating a chicken twister at a fast-food restaurant seven years ago. Today, the victim, who is now 14, cannot speak and is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Studies show salmonella is one of the most common bacterial causes of food-borne outbreaks, and more than one-third of all reported cases of salmonellosis occur in children under the age of 10.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, salmonella can trigger reactive arthritis and Reiter’s Syndrome in certain individuals, while in the long run, it can cause inflammation of the heart muscle, pancreatitis and blood infection. Crucially, in many cases of restaurant food poisoning, it was the sick or unhygienic employee who transmitted the bacteria to the food.
Food preparation and safety are the main complaints against Malaysian food outlets received by the National Consumer Complaints Centre (NCCC) this year, says Malaysian Association of Standards Users CEO Ratna Devi Nadarajan, listing out plastic in chicken burger, cockroach in a kid’s fast-food meal, lizard in a wedding cake and mouldy filled buns.
Ratna highlights lack of enforcement as a problem in the non-compliance with food safety regulations.
“Should consumer organisations call for stricter safety requirements and strong punitive measures, such as increased fines or even jail sentence?
“Among the eight universal consumer rights are the right to fulfil basic needs – air, water and food – followed by the right to safe products and services. How much of this is safeguarded through laws and their implementation?
“While the price of prepared or cooked food has been increasing, the level of safety and hygiene is far from improving,” she points out.
Ratna opines that hiring foreign workers to wait on customers or to prepare food in the kitchen may be an issue.
“It may be counterproductive to food hygiene practices considering their background, language barrier and lack of proper food hygiene training.
“Has the Health Ministry (MOH) and food hygiene training providers considered this human resource situation when developing capacity building activities?”
We have guidelines that direct a food producer on the “good” practices, procedures and environment of food production, says Ahmad Nadzri.
The problem lies in the fact that standards and guidelines are voluntary, he says.
“All of our enforcement actions are cautionary because we don’t want to shut down small businesses. It’s not a criminal offence unless there are deaths.
“So we don’t close the errant food sellers for good. We shut down them down for 14 days to give them a second chance to improve their practice and comply with the standards.”
He concedes the authorities need to step up their checks on food outlets and eateries nationwide, but stresses the importance of self-protection.
“Our immunity seems to be high but that is no excuse for us not to be aware and alert on the risks of food-borne illness. So, the Health Ministry is now working on raising public awareness on food safety,” he says.
True, Malaysians can be too tolerant at times.
On Thursday, a popular nasi kandar restaurant in Ipoh – often frequented by the Perak MB, even for VIP meetings – was ordered closed for two weeks due to lack of cleanliness. Yet, the iconic eatery was still swarming with regulars and visitors on the day it was ordered to shut down (temporarily). Some reportedly even objected to the clampdown.
Risk at home
People’s ignorance of the do’s and don’ts in keeping food safe is another issue, making us susceptible to food poisoning even in the safe confines of our home.
Take the recent case in Sungai Petani, Kedah, where four people died and 60 others were hospitalised after eating Ayam Masak Merah, which had been contaminated by salmonella bacteria at a wedding kenduri.
The Kedah Health Department’s investigations showed that the bacteria had spread to the chicken used for the dish after the chicken was left overnight to thaw at room temperature.
While we may not be cooking on the same scale, how many of us are guilty of the same negligence when preparing food at home?
Many are still unsure of how to store and prepare raw meat and vegetables, says Ahmad Nazri.
Health Ministry reports show that most food poisoning cases are caused by contaminated raw meat, food left uneaten for more than four hours, bad cooking process or undercooked meat, causing bacteria to breed, and unhygienic food preparation methods.
Many also don’t know how to clean their vegetables and fruits properly, especially those eaten raw such as fresh salad.
“Before you dig into your favourite nasi ayam, for example, look at the lettuce and cucumber accompanying it. Have they been cleaned properly?”
The growing global food market is also changing the pattern of food-borne illness. As food crosses borders, it leaves us more exposed to health risks. The threat is compounded by rising global food prices and the volatile nature of food security in the world.
What happens in one country now affects every other country – when melamine, a useful chemical that turned deadly when mixed with milk, caused the deaths of a few babies in China, it affected families in Europe and other ends of the world too, not just in baby formula but also other milk products like biscuits, chocolates and sweets.
Not to mention the more stomach-churning cases, as filed by the NCCC which received over 300 complaints to date this year, from maggots in some imported chocolates, needle in a three-in-one cereal mix and dead insects in malt drink powder.
The MOH conducts random sampling of the imported food regularly, says Ahmad Nadzri.
The problem is that there are many “doors” into Malaysia.
“Port hopping is a problem. If a port has stringent standards, the errant suppliers will simply go to another port that might be more lax on controls,” he says.
Fortunately, packed and canned food is low risk as the producers have to comply with international standards.
“Look out for internationally accepted certification before you buy. And of course, don’t buy anything past the expiry date or cans that are bloated – a bloated can is a sign the content is spoilt.”
Simple practices while shopping can also reduce the risk of food contamination, such as separating your raw meat from the fresh produce in the trolley or basket and not leaving your groceries in your car for too long.
Chemical residue from pesticide and feed in fresh produce, both locally and foreign produced, is another major food-borne illness threat for consumers.
Experts have warned that eating pesticide-tainted vegetables and fruits over a period of time can cause cancer, liver disease, nerve damage and birth defects.
For imported fresh produce, logistics is a major issue. As they cannot test each and every imported item, the MOH along with the Agriculture and Agro-based Ministry (MOA) will test samples of fresh food identified as “high risk” coming into the country, such as longan and fish products. For local farmers, compliance with standards is the issue (see sidebar).
The system is there to ensure that food we consume is safe from farm to table, says Ahmad Nadzri.
The lack of information among the public about the importance of food accreditation, coupled with its voluntary basis, however, has made food certification mere lip service in the country.
“We can only pick vegetables and fruits at random from the wet markets, supermarkets, pasar malam, pasar tani and others for testing. But the test cannot be completed before the produce is sold and eaten. If we can prove that a produce is unsafe for consumption, we can only stop the next batch.”
Ahmad Nadzri says they are very aware of the challenge for the average family in getting value food for money now with the rising food prices.
“But you need to ask yourself, what is your priority? Money or health? Unfortunately, if you want quality, you need to pay more.”
When the offer is too good to be true, it usually is, he warns.
“Ask yourself how certain goods can be sold so cheaply – if chicken is sold at RM2.95 per kilo or grapes at RM10 for 3kg, stop and ask yourself why it is so cheap, and if it is worth it.”
To raise public awareness on the importance of food standards, the related agencies and departments have come together to “relaunch” and “rebrand” their food certifications.
One certification that the MOA is trying to push is the Malaysian Good Agriculture Practices (myGAP) while the MOH is now trying to push its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point certification (HACCP), which is to ensure the hygiene and cleanliness of food products, both cooked and fresh.
“The average consumer now looks at the appearance of the produce and the price before they buy. We want them to also check to see if they are certified,” says Ahmad Nadzri.
The safety of vegetables and fruits is related to abuse of prohibited pesticide and the detection of pesticide residue.
“The MOA is responsible for monitoring the use of pesticide in the farms. We look at the food supply chain (from farm to table) to minimise the risk of contamination to consumers,” he says, adding that the HAACP complies with international standards.
Malaysia has made considerable progress in reducing pesticide residue problem in its vegetables but there are still many farmers who are not certified. Currently, only 106 out of 252 HACCP certificate holders are linked to the agriculture-based food industry.
“We are also not able to conduct more random toxicity tests due to shortage of trained manpower and facilities. So we hope we can get a helping hand from consumers.
“We hope, when buying fresh produce, consumers will start demanding for safety – and that is looking for the HACCP certification logo which guarantees that the produce meets the international food safety standards, and is safe to be eaten.
“When there is more demand in the market for certification, there will be more produce that comply with the standards,” he says.