Shocking finds at food factories

Friday April 17, 2009

The STAR online

By LIM CHIA YING

WHEN having your favourite char kuay teow, do you ever think how the rice noodles are made or processed or from where it is sourced from?

While the consumers rarely actually ask such questions, it is certainly the onus and responsibility of the food stall operators to conduct checks on the sources or suppliers.

However, this is not often the case, especially if they are small-time operators who are only concerned about purchasing the cheapest noodles from suppliers offering them competitive wholesale rates. They are not interested in how the noodles are processed, so long as they can get it cheap.

Such an attitude is surely most unfortunate and unethical as the quality of the noodles is dependent on the hygienic conditions in which it is produced.

The recent case of an illegal and unhygienic kuay teow-making cottage industry at Seri Kembangan in Selangor raided by the Subang Jaya Municipal Council (MPSJ) highlights the risk customers are exposed to when consuming such tainted noodles.

The Seri Kembangan house-factory was making kuay teow in very dreadful condition and supplying the noodles to various hawker stalls and outlets in the Klang Valley.

Last week, the MPSJ, acting on public complaints, raided the place which was a house converted into a noodle-making factory.

The health enforcement officers found the place filthy and unhygienic, with a broken ceiling next to the rusty and old kuay teow making machine and other equipment, which can cause toxicity in the food.

The MPSJ also discovered that the operator has no business licence.

The place was sealed by the MPSJ.

A bigger case involves a licensed food processing and supply factory, also in Seri Kembangan, which supplies frozen and Japanese food products to a whole list of major hotels, hypermarkets and its chains, and also popular eating outlets in Klang Valley.

On Tuesday, the factory was ordered to close under the Food Act 1983 which provides for a maximum 14-day closure order.

The order came after the Petaling district health office conducted the inspection on the factory and found certain conditions and guidelines had not been duly complied with.

MPSJ health officers and Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) officers also took part in the operation.

In fact, the factory had been closed on April 6 by the MPSJ on the grounds that conditions of certain areas within the premises were unhygienic.

The MPSJ has found that the factory’s food processing kitchen and storage area were dirty and unhygienic while the safety of its workers was also not given due attention.

The MPSJ order for maximum closure is also 14 days, during which the factory operator has to clean up the place and improve on the various aspects and then write in to the council to ask for an inspection.

If the various health and hygienic requirements are found to be satisfactory and meet with the guidelines, the factory will be allowed to operate again. However, if they reopen without getting the council permission, the bylaw only allows for a maximum compound of RM1,000.

The factory operator had written in for an inspection, but before it could be conducted, officers suspected that it had already been operating although they had no concrete evidence.

A three-hour thorough inspection found that frozen products were strewn over the floor inside the frozen room area when they are supposed to be arranged on shelves.

A strong smell had emanated from the frozen room suggesting that there was food already past its expiry date. The officers even found some food dating way back to 2005.

Bottles and bottles of Japanese soy sauce which were stacked inside boxes and packets of curry paste and belacan inside freezers were also examined, but they contained no proper labelling to denote the ingredients.

The manager and workers were overheard telling the officers that they had taken supply from another supplier downtown.

A Jais officer commented that there was suspicion on whether the products were halal as there were no labels on ingredients.

Although the food processing area is said to have improved, the officers found one or two cockroaches scurrying near the utensil area while outside, a rat happened to dash down from the ceiling.

The workers who had previously not attended any food handling course, however, had certificates to show since the April 6 closure that they had undergone the course.

“After calculating the scorecard, we graded them 46%, which is still below the 50% mark required to open for business,” a Petaling district health officer said.

“We have advised the operator that some of their workers need to go for vaccinations, utensils have to be changed, products arranged properly, the expired goods need to be destroyed, and thorough cleaning has to be conducted,” he said.

“This is one way of educating the operator and we’ll monitor the factory operation jointly with the MPSJ so that this order is not disobeyed. I think the factory staff understood what we told them,” the officer said.

MPSJ health director Dr Abdul Rahim Ahmad said he was very serious about health and hygiene aspects of food-related businesses as a slight negligence by the operators can trigger a bout of food poisoning.

“We are getting the list from the operator of their supply outlets and the list may not exhaustive. Tests of food samples will be conducted at the lab, and while not wanting to create an unnecessary panic situation, we’ll write to the various outlets and their management about this,” Rahim said.

“Although some hotels do conduct their own auditing and health inspections, there is no guarantee as to who does and who does not. Also, some could receive their stocks from middlemen who repackage the items before delivering them,” he said.

“We hope to heighten the public’s awareness about their food consumption, and also hypermarkets or eating places to check up their supply sources as they have a responsibility towards consumers, and consumers have the right to know,” Rahim said.

Rahim added that tip-offs from the public were also very important in helping the department carry out its duties.

Meanwhile, in a latest update, the Petaling district health officer said the frozen food factory has called the office up for re-inspection, saying that it had done what was required, but the officer said he was awaiting a letter from the operator.

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