Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two ministers, two approaches


Benchmark idea for hospital canteens ‘helpful’, but won’t work for hawker stalls: Yaacob

Leong Wee Keat, weekeat@mediacorp.com.sg

WHILE he welcomes the Health Minister’s firm stance that food stalls at public hospitals must score an “A” or “B” on cleanliness, that is Mr Khaw Boon Wan’s “prerogative”, says Minister for Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim, who rules out tying hawker stall tenders to hygiene grades.

“If we just penalise them just because they are (graded) Cs and Ds, there may be other implications,” said Dr Yaacob yesterday. “I think some hawkers have already mentioned ... that this may affect their livelihood. So, rather than make it a legal requirement, we work with them ... On the part of NEA (National Environment Agency), we will continue to work with the hawkers and hawkers’ association to improve their hygiene standards.”

He also called on consumers to send a signal by choosing a B-graded stall over one graded C.

On Sunday, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan suggested linking the renewal of stall tenders at hospitals to their hygiene ratings, with those not meeting the mark told to close shop.

While there is clear consensus that cleanliness standards need to be improved, why such divergent approaches from two ministers?

There is “no right or wrong” in either approach, said Madam Halimah Yacob who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Health.

In hospitals, the public expect the “highest standard of hygiene possible” and if mass food poisoning were to occur, “the psychological impact would be far greater”, she felt. Pointing out that hospital food stalls see a different clientele, Mdm Halimah added: “Besides visitors, customers could also be patients waiting to see a doctor.”

Her counterpart helming the GPC for Environment, Mr Charles Chong, pointed out that while food stalls in hospitals could be purpose-built, hawker centres on the other hand come in a wide range — including makeshift temporary ones.

“Some are old, some are new. If they impose a minimum standard straight away ... there will be an uproar from the hawkers who may complain that they have been subjectively graded,” he said.

Numbers could also make a difference: While there are just six restructured hospitals, there are 106 hawker centres across the island with 5,600 stalls.


No hygiene rating for night markets

Pasar malams will not be given a hygiene rating — in spite of the fact that more food stall operators at such night markets were booked last year for hygiene lapses — but that does not mean they are not scrutinised, said Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.

Pasar malams “operate on a very short basis” and by the time the grading is done, the markets are over. “The most important thing is to make sure we check. So, don’t be under the impression that pasar malams are not being supervised ... Our inspectors are down on the ground to supervise,” the Minister said.

There are also licensing requirements, such as that food must be prepared beforehand, with only heating up or frying allowed. Last year, 45 enforcement tickets were issued, up from 31 in 2007 and 23 in 2006.



Since 2001, 72 centres have been upgraded with the remaining 30 or so to be madeover by 2012. And Dr Yaacob is confident this would help significantly to raise standards. After all, he revealed, 99 per cent of the stall holders who have benefitted from the Hawker Centre Upgrading Programme, have achieved “A” or “B” grades.

“This shows that as we begin to improve the ambience, design, layout and impose better cleaning practices, hawkers can do a good job in terms of improving hygiene standards,” he said.

The 12-year-old hygiene grading system assesses food hawkers based on cleanliness, housekeeping and food and personal hygiene. Last year, more than 85 per cent of stalls scored an “A” or “B”.

The weak chink in the armour: The four temporary markets currently, where more than nine in 10 stalls have “C” grades. Inspections of such markets have been stepped up, Dr Yaacob said.

Mr Chong hopes more can be done. He got the sense, after speaking to some hawkers, that many are not clear on how grading is conducted. The authorities could also think of ways — such as rental rebates — to reward hawkers who move from a “C” to an “A” grade, he said.

From TODAY, News – Thursday, 23-April-2009


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