18/04/19: Multiple cases of food poisoning, hygiene lapses at NUS residences in the past two years, say students

A compilation of photos of a dead rat in the liquid waste bin (right) as well as insects in food served to students at residences in the National University of Singapore, taken by students over the past two years.
A compilation of photos of a dead rat in the liquid waste bin (right), as well as insects in food, served to students at residences in the National University of Singapore, taken by students over the past two years.

Some have complained about getting food poisoning. Others have seen insects in their food, or rats and cockroaches at cafeterias.

These are what National University of Singapore (NUS) students from at least three halls of residences and all five of the university’s residential colleges claimed to have experienced over the past two years.

On Wednesday (April 17) it was reported that Prince George’s Park (PGP) House, a hall of residence, was hit by a gastroenteritis outbreak affecting five students last Friday.

“Some had also consumed food at off-campus dining outlets prior to falling ill. The five students have since recovered,” said an NUS spokesperson.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said on Thursday that it is investigating the incident. It added that the food was not provided by an external caterer.

The university has also commissioned an independent audit of its residential dining halls.

PAST INCIDENTS

TODAY spoke to 12 students — some of whom were directly affected — who recounted multiple incidences where people from their residence fell ill after eating at the dining hall, as well as sightings of snails, worms and bugs in food from their residences.

These students belonged to all five of the university’s residential colleges — Cinnamon College, College of Alice & Peter Tan, Residential College 4, Tembusu College and RVRC — and three out of the seven halls of residences.

Residential colleges offer students an integrated living and learning experience, and students can take up residential modules exclusive to individual colleges. Meanwhile, halls of residences place greater emphasis on student development through community work, sports and the arts.

These students have access to a dining hall that is open only to residents of the college or hall. Students staying in colleges and halls are required to subscribe to meal plans consisting of breakfast and dinner, and weekly rates for meals are from S$26 in halls to S$51 in colleges.

The exception is PGP House, where students dine at canteens and restaurants in the residence.

COLLEGE OF ALICE & PETER TAN

At the College of Alice & Peter Tan, 19 students fell ill in October 2018 over the course of a few days after eating food from the dining hall.

NUS said that food samples were sent for testing and independent lab tests did not detect any food-borne pathogen in the samples.

“It was unlikely that this incident was related to the food consumed at the dining hall,” the spokesperson added.

That same year, a cockroach nymph was found in the halal food served to a student. A rat was later found dead in the liquid waste bin of the crockery collection point in the dining hall by another student later that year.

NUS said it instructed the caterer, Chartwells, to wash and sanitise its kitchen and serving areas, and conduct thorough inspections of the kitchen after these cases. It added that Chartwells activated pest control specialists after the incidents were reported.

However, in response to queries, a spokesperson for Chartwells said: “We are not aware of the situations mentioned.”

CASES AT OTHER RESIDENTIAL COLLEGES

Chartwells, which caters food for all five residential colleges, is linked to several other cases.

Several students from the other three residential colleges — Cinnamon College, Residential College 4 and Tembusu College — told TODAY that they had reported sightings of bugs in their food in the past.

Chartwells is owned by the world’s largest catering firm Compass Group, which reported 23 billion pounds (S$40.67 billion) in revenue last year.

NUS said Chartwells is under investigation but the catering firm is still preparing food for all five residential colleges, including RVRC.

Asked why the University still employs the services of Chartwells despite the incidents over the past two years, the NUS spokesperson said: “The Office of Housing Services (OHS) has instructed dining operator Chartwells to conduct a comprehensive review of their processes at all five Residential Colleges on campus.”

HALLS OF RESIDENCE

Unlike with the residential colleges, TODAY understands that meals at halls of residences are served by different caterers. Yet, students have also reported similar incidents where students fell ill and were served food containing bugs.

In August 2017, at least 40 students living at Sheares Hall reported to student leaders in the hall that they suffered diarrhoea after they had dinner from the dining hall. One student reported vomiting.

NUS said the caterer involved, Leng Hiang Catering, was alerted immediately and an internal investigation was conducted.

“Leng Hiang Catering offered to cover the medical expenses incurred by those affected. Thus far, there were no medical claims received despite reminders for those affected to come forward and submit their claims,” the spokesperson added.

Mr Daniel Wee, 24, then vice-president of the Sheares Hall Junior Common Room Committee, said that in September that same year, the committee of student leaders received reports of bugs found in the students’ food — including a cockroach, a snail and a worm.

The committee submitted the reports to the academic and professorial staff residents in the hall and proposed to change to the dining operator.

NUS said: “After considering the various lapses, Sheares Hall issued a warning letter to Leng Hiang Catering in September 2017. Leng Hiang Catering’s contract was not renewed when it ended in August 2018.”

However, problems persist at other halls of residences. Aside from the latest incident at PGP, TODAY also spoke to students who said it is not uncommon to hear of friends who fall ill after eating at the dining halls.

One student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that a certain dish from his hall is “notorious” for giving students diarrhoea and that they have already informed their hall office.

As another student puts it: “Chartwells always gets complaints, everyone knows… but in the end, it’s the aunties receiving the blow (if we complain).”

NUS SAYS…

When asked about these cases, NUS told TODAY that OHS, in consultation with students and staff, appoints external dining operators to provide meals at all residential colleges and halls of residence.

About 50,000 meals are served to more than 6,000 residents each week.

“Food safety and hygiene is our top concern and priority. Feedback from students is taken seriously and all reported cases of possible food contamination are thoroughly investigated,” a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that when necessary, food samples are collected for testing and kitchens are cleaned and disinfected as a precautionary measure. OHS will also step up inspections and audits of the kitchens to enforce a higher hygiene standard, he said.

“As an additional measure, the university has initiated an independent audit of these dining areas on 17 April 2019. This audit is expected to be completed within a month,” he added.

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