After reading the article below, I not only lost my appetite, but felt I throwing out. Can you imagine finding nose dirt, fingernails, hair, cockroaches, feelers, rodents and all in your food? And apparently, what looks good doesn’t mean that it’s good. Perhaps, sometimes it is better not to think too much before sinking your teeth into delicious looking food – it might not be that good to think too much.

For the next few days, if the kitchens of the Japanese-styled or American-styled restaurant that I am visiting is not in an open concept, I’d be avoiding them. Read on only if you have a strong stomach. I am already feeling sick.

WHEN Ms Carol Yap ordered a kaya toast and coffee combo at a cafe recently, she wasn’t counting on biting into anything more than hot kaya spread and a slab of butter on crispy bread.

There was something chewy and stringy in her mouth – it was a piece of dental floss and it wasn’t hers.

This wasn’t the first time the 36-year-old has made an unsavoury discovery in her food. A few years earlier, she thought her noodles at a Chinese restaurant might have been overdone until she spat out a 1.5cm piece of wire.

‘Luckily I didn’t cut myself or break a tooth,’ said the shocked secretary.

Most people could probably cite at least one encounter with foreign matter in their food – maybe a strand of hair or a small dead bug.

The recent PrimaDeli food poisoning case, when more than 100 people became ill after eating the bakery’s cakes, has put food hygiene in the spotlight.

In fact, more eateries and hawker stalls have landed themselves in the soup this year than the past three years, mostly for filthy premises, rodent infestation and contaminated food.

Offending food outlets fined by the National Environment Agency (NEA) so far this year numbered 2,148. This is up from 1,307 last year, 1,524 in 2005 and 1,857 in 2004.

NEA puts the high number down to stepped-up checks and more tip-offs from the public.

But just what goes on behind kitchen doors? Heard those stories about underpaid, overworked chefs spitting into your food? That’s not an urban myth.

Although kitchen staff say it hardly happens now, waitresses at one Japanese food chain were known to have done that to picky customers.

But the most common transgression, it seems, is not washing hands after a visit to the loo.

Lack of hygiene

FOOD handlers say that in their rush to get orders out, they sometimes forget to soap up. And even though gloves are a must when it comes to handling cooked food, not all use them.

A chef who has been in the business for more than 20 years says he has seen it all: from the spitting to the scratching to the sneezing.

‘When I catch them scratching their oily scalps and go back to preparing the food, I’ll scold them and ask them: will you eat this food yourself?’ he said.

Chef Ang Song Kang of Canton Wok by Chef Kang said: ‘It’s about personal hygiene. If you can’t even be clean with yourself, how can you expect to serve others?’

Cooks in Chinese kitchens, especially, think nothing of handling raw and cooked food with the same set of bare hands.

One 50-year-old waitress, who has done the rounds in Chinese restaurants, readily admits she and her colleagues sometimes use their bare hands to arrange food on a plate, such as the cold dish served at wedding dinners.

At a top-end popular Chinese restaurant here, tea leaves are left exposed and vulnerable to cockroaches.

Another waitress said: ‘When we’re busy, we just use our hands to grab the tea leaves. Or if a plate is stained, we just wipe it with our fingers.’

A part-time kitchen helper at an American-style cafe said her manager even told her not to wear gloves when dishing out food, as it was easier and faster to work with bare hands.

‘All the food got embedded in my nails. It was disgusting,’ said the 18-year-old polytechnic student.

Food suppliers are just as culpable when it comes to lack of cleanliness. They are known to drop their uncovered fresh produce deliveries such as meat and vegetables on the greasy kitchen floor.

But sometimes, the problem has less to do with sloppy humans than pesky insects.

One 20-year-old, who used to work in the kitchen of an American chain of restaurants, said he would go to work in the morning to find cockroaches inside the giant mixer that the restaurant used to mix batter for its muffins.

Hardly surprising, then, that at least three customers have returned with half-eaten food with feelers hanging out.

The culinary misadventures of Singapore’s kitchen keepers also extend to the all-important E word: ethics – or the lack of.

Don’t expect cooks to throw out food articles past their expiry date. The rule, it seems, is: it’s still good for another six months.

‘As long as they don’t smell bad, the expiry date can always be prolonged,’ said one kitchen helper about sauces, seasoning and canned food which routinely get a new lease of life.

And just because your fruit tartlet doesn’t look mouldy doesn’t mean it wasn’t before.

A caterer says it’s not uncommon for food handlers to slice off mouldy bits on these tarts and continue to serve them as if they were fresh out of the oven.

Unwashed vegetables, food that is salvaged from the kitchen floor, thawed meat that gets absent-mindedly stuck back into the freezer: when the going gets tough, so do frazzled kitchen staff.

Pinning the responsibility

COOKS’ greatest defence for most things unwashed and unclean: the heat from the stove will kill the germs anyway.

Serving and kitchen staff put the responsibility on their management. ‘If they don’t care, we don’t care. If something goes wrong, it’s their responsibility, not ours,’ says one seasoned waitress.

At some kitchens, that responsibility is not taken lightly.

In the central kitchen of Bakerzin at Harper Road in MacPherson, a CCTV camera watches over food handlers. The company has three quality assurance officers who do daily rounds in the kitchen, said chief executive officer Daniel Tay.

It also routinely does hand, table and equipment swabs to test for cleanliness. Those who fail the hand swab test have their names pinned on a notice board.

‘We want to build a culture of good, personal hygiene and that’s not easy,’ said Mr Tay, who hopes to model his kitchen after those in Japan where ‘it’s almost like a clean room’.

The same goes for Crystal Jade, which has 29 restaurants and 10 bakeries and one confectionery factory servicing the bakery outlets.

Workers caught flouting its hygiene policies are given a verbal, then a written, warning. Three strikes and you’re out!

All unsold buns at its outlets are thrown out at the end of each day, while the shelf life of cakes is 24 hours.

The Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which regulates all food manufacturers, conducts surprise checks on these factories as often as twice a month.

It has imposed 42 fines – of between $300 and $1,000 – so far this year on manufacturers who used unapproved additives, sold mouldy food and had dirty premises.

But for all the unappetising culinary secrets this well-known food paradise keeps, you are still much less likely to need an iron stomach now, thanks to strict government regulations that require all food handlers to go for typhoid jabs, wear protective gear and attend a food hygiene course.

In fact, the number of food outlets that have earned an A cleanliness rating from the NEA has risen from 18 per cent five years ago to 33 per cent this year.

Even the nasty episodes that Ms Yap had to endure haven’t put her off eating out, which she does at least five times a week.

‘I’m too busy to cook so I have no choice,’ she said.

‘Just don’t let me see it.’

dawntan@sph.com.sg

Article obtained from straitstimes.com on 16th December 2007



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