Friday, April 10, 2009

Indian Rojak, Rojak Theories and Mass Media Poisoning

April 10, 2009


Probe into another stall

By April Chong & Diana Othman

INVESTIGATIONS into what may have led to Singapore's worst outbreak of food poisoning appears to have moved beyond the Indian rojak stall to a neighbouring stall selling mee siam.

[PM knows. Mee Siam mai hum!]

It is now known that both stalls in the Geylang Serai Temporary Market shared the same refrigerator. The rojak sellers also used their neighbour's premises to store and wash their equipment.

It is becoming increasingly certain from further laboratory testing that the Vibro parahaemolyticus bacteria is the source of the food poisoning, 'most likely due to cross-contamination of rojak and raw seafood ingredients harbouring the bacteria,' said the statement.

At last count, 154 people have been struck after eating the stall's Indian rojak, with 48 people warded. Six patients remain in hospital.

The outbreak was cited as an example of deteriorating hygiene standards by Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

He suggested stepping up the frequency of spring-cleaning at hawker centres. NEA guidelines state that this should take place two or three times a year.

The Geylang Serai market was closed for two days for cleaners to wash the area and stallholders to scour their stalls. Pest controllers have been laying traps and baits since last Friday to rid the area of rats.


"Rojak" has been translated as "Salad", but that's a bad translation. When we use the term "rojak" to describe something, like "your thesis was a rojak of theories and assumptions", we can't replace "rojak" with "salad" and still retain the nuanced meaning of the original.

Rojak has the connotative meaning of mish-mash or incoherent or incongruent mix of ingredients. And seems to describe the theories as well as the so-called "preventive measures" that has been taken so far.

The Indian Rojak Mass Food Poisoning incident was originally attributed to the "off-tasting" gravy. One victim said it tasty salty. Then it was discovered that Vibro parahaemolyticus (VP), a seafood bacteria, was present in at least two of the victims. After questioning the victims, it was suggested that those most affected by the food poisoning were those who ate a lot of the prawn fritters and cuttlefish.

Then it was discovered that the Rojak stall stored their food in the Mee Siam stall's refrigerator just next to them. And now the theory is the rojak was cross contaminated by the uncooked seafood in the mee siam stall.

(Excuse me. I eat mee siam sometimes. I don't usually get seafood with my mee siam. And no, mee siam mai hum. So what seafood?)

In the meantime, they are cleaning the hawker centre, catching rats and talking about toilet cleanliness and crows and mynahs as well.

Channel News Asia jumped to the conclusion and has a poll on "How should the hawker be punished for the mass food poisoning?" Punishment is usually decided after guilt and responsibility has been established. To be sure, it is very likely that most of the responsibility would be on him. But investigations are still on-going and theories are still being tossed around in the rojak bowl. Why the rush to judgement?

Then they are talking about regular spring cleaning and NEA is saying as this is a temporary market its cleaning is not under its jurisdiction.

So the theory has now expanded to include rat infestation (with an observation that these rats are patchy and wet and are likely to be sewer rats - and the point being?), birds, hygiene practice, toilet cleanliness, market cleaning, plus cross contamination.

The fact of the matter is that even if there were no rats in the market, no crows and mynahs in the vicinity, and the cleaners cleaned up before they left every night, and the market is cleaned regularly, and the toilets are also very clean, this food poisoning would still have happened if the true cause was the cross contamination. All the on-going cleaning and rat-trapping are just wayang. The rats, disgusting though they may be, did not cause the food poisoning. The less than pristine environment, though unappetising, did not contribute to the food poisoning. If they did then patrons of all the other stalls and the market would have suffered food poisoning.

Tossing in all these superfluous elements serves up a rojak of theories about the food poisoning that does not bring us closer to the truth.

The sad sad fact is that people just want to see that something is done in the aftermath of a tragedy. This wayang serves no purpose other than to assuage perceived public anger.

The other sad sad fact is that the media has stupidly bought into the wayang... or are active conspirators and actors in the wayang. Instead of seeing and reporting the spring cleaning and pest control as the desperate remedial action of public agencies closing the barn door after the chicken has flown the coop (and no I am not mixing my metaphors - just pointing out the irrelevance of closing the barn door when it is the chicken coop that needs tending).

If the true cause of the food poisoning is due to the cross contamination from sharing facilities, then the issue is about the size, space, and design of food stalls both temporary and permanent, in addition to hygienic food handling practice.

MOH press statement on the matter (14 April 2009)

Update: Aftermath: Four Years later. All is good, again.

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