The Singapore National Environment Agency (NEA) issued an advisory on Friday (Nov 27) for the sale and consumption of raw fish after further investigations into the spike of Group B Streptococcus (GBS) infections reported in June.
With findings showing a link between the consumption of raw fish dishes and disease caused by GBS, NEA has cautioned the public over the inherent risks of consuming raw food, while food stalls are to immediately stop selling raw fish dishes until they adhere to guidelines set out by the agency.
In the first half of the year, the number of GBS cases at hospitals rose from an average of 150 a year in the past four years to 238 a year. In July, with some samples of raw fish found to contain GBS bacteria, the NEA advised stallholders to temporarily stop selling raw fish dishes using Song and Toman fish.
While the result has been a dip in GBS cases to less than five a week, the cause of these baseline infections remains unknown, said NEA.
A joint-investigation with the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) has determined that food handlers are unlikely to be the source of the GBS bacteria, after 82 such individuals were tested and returned negative results.
Between August and October, the AVA and NEA also tested about 400 samples of a variety of commonly-used fish and found GBS present in 20.1 per cent while 4.1 per cent carried the Type III GBS ST283 strain associated with the consumption of Chinese-style raw fish dishes like yusheng.
NEA could not pinpoint the exact source of contamination but said it could have occurred at any part of the food supply chain, from fishery ports to wet market stalls to food shops. It did not rule out that the GBS bacteria could have been imported from its original source.
“The fish that we receive in Singapore are either farm bred or wild caught,” said Mr Derek Ho, NEA’s director-general of its Environmental Public Health Division. “They could be from farms or sea. They could come into Singapore through various channels – through the fishery ports. Some are air flown in and of course at various supply chains from the ports it goes to distribution points for example, the wet market stalls before it finally ends up at the retail end.”
CONSUMERS SHOULD EXERCISE CAUTION
In light of its findings, NEA has advised consumers to exercise caution over the consumption of raw fish and in general, raw foods, as harmful bacteria may be present. Cooking raw food is still the most effective way to kill bacteria, it said.
“Most food we find in our fishery ports and markets are not meant for raw consumption,” said Mr Ho. “They are meant for cooking, so we shouldn’t be buying from markets and thinking these could be just cut up and you can eat it raw.”
“If you want to eat food that’s raw, you should ensure they are procured from proper sources,” he added. “For example, if you are preparing your own yusheng, you should ensure the raw fish you intend for raw consumption is procured from sources where the fish is intended for that purpose … in supermarkets, we have dedicated counters for selling such raw products.”
The NEA director-general also said: “The consumption of raw foods in itself is inherently risky, especially for vulnerable groups. If you are pregnant, immune-compromised, or have young children, it’s best you don’t take raw food.”
STALLHOLDERS NEED TO COMPLY WITH GUIDELINES
According to Mr Ho, NEA would inform over 70 stalls selling raw fish dishes that with immediate effect, “they should cease sales of such raw fish, until such time they are able to comply with the advisory and guidelines which will be issued to them for safe handling of ready-to-eat raw fish”.
“These include ensuring the fish is procured from sources where there is assurance that the waters are cleaner, and there’s a proper cold chain system in terms of processing and handling of fish,” said Mr Ho. “And right down to the stall itself to ensure proper segregation of fish intended for raw consumption from other raw products meant for cooking.”
“Proper segregation from the source all the way down to the point of sale will ensure the ready-to-eat fish is of the highest quality and safe for consumption,” he said.
Stressing that this was not a ban, nor a complete halt to the sale of raw fish dishes, NEA said it would directly engage and work with stallholders on how to properly recognise the advisory and abide by its guidelines.
The agency said it would keep the raw fish stalls under active monitoring and surveillance. If any rules are flouted, NEA said it would have legal provisions to take action, whether through demerit points, fines ranging from S$300 to S$2,000, or the suspension of the stall’s license in cases of repeat offences.
Asked if it would provide monetary support for stalls with raw fish dishes as their main livelihood, NEA said: “We are not considering financial assistance at this point. Stallholders have to make the necessary adjustments.”
HAWKERS REPORT A DROP IN BUSINESS
Stall holders Channel NewsAsia spoke with said business has dropped since the GBS Bacteria was found to have been linked to raw fish.
“Ever since authorities started looking into the matter, and after the media started covering the incident, the market (raw fish stalls) has been affected,” said Mr Kiang Choon Tong, owner of Soon Heng Pork and Fish Porridge at Amoy Street Food Centre. “While we usually sell about 70 to 80 portions a day, now we can’t even sell 10 plates a day. Because the moment people hear ‘yusheng’, they’re scared.”
Mr Kiang added that business has been poor since July.
“It’s really hard to survive,” he said. “People now have a fear of yusheng. They’re all scared after reading or watching news reports.”
Mr Wong Yeow Loy, owner of Tian Tian Porridge at Chinatown Complex Market, shared similar experiences. He said he has seen a “40 per cent drop” in sales.
Both stallholders say they have stopped from using Song fish and are now using Xi Dao fish (Wolf Herring).
“Xi Dao fish and Song fish, in terms of pricing, Xidao is more expensive by nature,” said Mr Kiang. “Song fish is more popular, both with stall holders and customers, as its value for money.”
“Xi Dao tastes really good. But because of its price, many avoid it,” he added. “However, more discerning customers would still choose Xi Dao instead.”
Due to the increase in cost, the price of each dish has also gone up.
“We had to increase our prices ever since we started using Xi Dao fish. It used to be S$2.50 per plate for Song fish, now it’s S$5,” said Mr Wong. “I’d like to tell customers that the Xi Dao fish is approved for use, so that they will have more confidence (in buying the dish).
“We intend to stick with using Xi Dao fish until the Song fish has been approved for use again.”