Clean hands to eat poisonous vegetables

The toilet at this coffee shop is quite serviceable

I wonder how many people are as surprised as I was to read that a coffee shop had its licence suspended for a day over the absence of soap in its washroom. Gee, if that’s the case, I said to myself, hundreds of food establishements should be shut down. Dirty, broken and ill-provisioned toilets are everywhere in Singapore.

According to the news story, Mee Sek Food Court in the Upper Serangoon area had accumulated 12 demerit points in a year. It thus merited a penalty. More details can be seen from this press release from NEA. The leading paragraphs of its statement say:

The National Environment Agency (NEA) will be suspending the licence of eating house at 965-969 Upper Serangoon Road, Singapore 534721 under the Points Demerit System for main operators. The eating house, together with all of its food stalls, will be required to cease operations for one day on 06/10/2017.

The main operator has accumulated 12 demerit points over the last 12 months and fined a total of $800 for the following offences:

Depending on their past records, main operators of coffeeshops, food courts and canteens who accumulates 12 or more demerit points during a 12-month period may have their licences suspended for a period of either one, two or three days. All food stalls operating within the premises will also have to cease operations for the same period of time.

So, we now see that this main operator of a food court had two violations within a 12-month period for not having soap in its toilets. What I’d be interested to know, out of pure curiosity, is whether the place was caught once and then caught again a few months later, or was it caught only once, but that it had two counts against it for not having soap in the men’s and women’s toilets.

Just a week earlier on 28 September 2017, an establishment at Bukit Batok West Avenue 4 was similarly suspended for a day after two violations of ‘no soap in toilet’ were found. The same question came to mind. Was this place recalcitrant — still refusing to provide soap after being caught once — or was it too cited twice on the same inspection?

More details of NEA’s demerit points system for food establishments can be found here though it doesn’t answer the above question. The webpage links to an Annex A which provides a long list of violations. Failing to “provide toilet paper, soap etc in toilet” would earn the operator 6 demerit points and a fine of $400.

It’s good to know that action is being taken for failing to meet standards. However, bad toilets are so common in Singapore, monitoring is probably far short of need.

* * * * *

In my neighbourhood,  there are several coffee shops, one hawker centre and a McDonald’s.  I have only used the toilets of two of the coffeeshops, and recently used the one in the hawker centre. I have also used the one in McDonald’s and it is positively the worst of the lot. It is smelly.

Some toilets in the MRT stations are also terrible. My observation is that bad toilets in Singapore are due to four main reasons:

Firstly, under-provision for expected traffic. Over the years, I have noticed that smaller and smaller toilets are allowed at public places. I guess it’s because as property cost has gone up, building codes have become more lenient. Landlords are allowed to shrink public convenience areas in order to maximise lettable acreage. But the result is that with smaller toilets, high traffic and cramped space make cleaning very difficult.

Secondly, under-specification for ventilation. This is particularly bad at MRT stations. With insufficient air-exchange, smells build up. Humidity also remains high, which encourages bacteria growth.

Thirdly, poor training for cleaners. Particularly in places like coffee shops where old ladies are often employed to clean toilets, they bring with them bad habits. For example, there was one occasion when I saw the woman clean the toilet by spraying water all over the space, walls included. It’s hardly any wonder that the electronic detectors at the urinals and toilet bowls are shorted or corroded.

Fourthly, anti-social habits of Singaporeans. My biggest gripe is that of throwing tissue paper into urinals and washbasins.

It’s going to take a whole lot more effort across different agencies to get better public toilets.

* * * * *

One thing you’d notice about the demerit points system is that most of rules are aimed at reducing public health risks from contamination by micro-organisms. Public health risks from toxins, e.g. pesticides, are hardly addressed.

There is a scary blogpost from February 2014 which highlights this. The link is https://gintai.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/health-warning-watch-what-you/. Albeit that the post describes what happened at one stall, there is no reason to believe that other “economy rice” stalls are much different. Competitive pressures would tend towards the same cost-cutting.

Due to time constraint with only one assistant, the in-charge who does the cooking of more than 20 dishes has got to be fast and energetic. As such, he is forced to take short cuts and cut corners. This is what is happening in the food preparation. For example, the vegetable is never washed at all. One method is to boil a big pot of water and dump the unwashed vegetable to half-cook it. Thereafter, it’s then stir fried to taste. I do not worry about dirt and slime on the stalks and leaves of the vegetables. I am more perturbed by the tons of insecticide residue on them. Just look at the beautiful green leaves where even worms would not feast. Surely it must be the insecticide that is keeping away the worms chewing on it.

If it was just one blogpost somewhere, our minds may tend to ignore its import. Life carries on as before. But I found it a bit worrying when I recall that over the years,  a few other people, middle-aged mostly, have also mentioned in passing to me that they avoid vegetables from hawker centres. They cite the same reason: pesticide residue. I do not think these persons who tell me this spend much time surfing the internet or reading blogposts, so are there additional, separate sources of information? Or is that just the same meme going around widely? Are Singaporeans going to face, in time, an epidemic of cancers and dementia from pesticides?

Public interest advertising from the Health Promotion Board

It strikes me as more than a little ironic that on the one hand we have a government agency, the Health Promotion Board, trying to encourage Singaporeans to eat more healthily, including taking more vegetables, while on the other hand, the NEA may not be devoting sufficient attention to the health risk from consuming vegetables.

The problem is that we simply have no empirical data on this issue.

There is a Straits Times story from 3 October 2016 which said “The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) sampled about 8,000 consignments of imported vegetables and fruit for pesticides” in 2015, and about “300 batches of vegetables — mostly leafy greens — and fruit were stopped from being sold in Singapore last year, after pesticide residues found on samples exceeded levels allowed by the authorities.”

What the story doesn’t tell us is whether the 8,000 batches represented all the batches imported into Singapore or they were a random sampling of imports. If the latter, it means that other batches got through to our shops and supermarkets without even being tested.

To make matters worse, the story said “But this does not necessarily mean that they are unsafe, stressed the AVA and food science experts”. What’s the “they” in this sentence? The 300 or the 8,000? The rest of the story seems to suggest that because the toxicity limits are set very conservatively, even the 300 are not necessarily unsafe. If so, would this mean that it is OK to consume the passed batches without even washing them?

You see, very often government statements mix fact with opinion — and as we all know, government opinion is not to be trusted. The result is a story that in fact does not inform. And we still end up with no credible empirical data.

Surfing around the web unearths clearer advice (though still no data). This site says,

To get rid of pesticide residue and microbes like bacteria on vegetables, you should always wash them well before consumption. Generally, a 30-second rinse followed by a 15-minute soak, and a final rinse will help to remove a significant portion of pesticide residue, said the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).

And just in case you, like me, don’t trust the Singapore agencies, an American site, under the section “Can you wash away pesticides?” corroborates by saying,

Wash your produce — conventional and organic — in running water. You don’t need any special washes. Researchers at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station compared rinsing fruit and vegetables in plain water for one minute with washing them with vegetable washes (four different ones) and a solution of dishwashing soap and water. Water alone was as effective as any of the washes or soap. Rubbing produce with soft skins like peaches or using a vegetable brush on harder items like potatoes or carrots will help remove residues, dirt and germs.

This site also cautions that “some pesticides are systemic, that is they are taken up by the plant’s root system and get into the fruit or vegetable flesh so they can’t be washed off.” Oh dear.

Moreover, you need to be alert to the possibility that at the farm level, American regulations may be stricter than whatever may apply in Malaysia or China — the sources of many of our vegetables. So the “rinsing will do” advice for Americans may not be suitable for Singaporeans.

Nonetheless, amidst the fog, it can still be argued that fears about pesticide residues on vegetables from “economy rice” stalls are overblown. Yet it is not a difficult risk to assess and tackle. NEA needs to send teams around, draw samples of cooked food from stalls (as opposed to imports) and get them tested in the lab. Objective results should be published without admixing opinion. Expanding the list of demerit points violations to encompass unwashed grains and vegetables would be welcome.

Like so many things in Singapore, our sprawling government machinery really needs to get its act together.

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