Raw fish dishes containing freshwater fish banned

From ‘Freshwater fish banned in ready-to-eat raw fish dishes’, 5 Dec 15, article in CNA

The Ministry of Health (MOH), National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Agri-Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) on Saturday (Dec 5) announced that the use of freshwater fish in all ready-to-eat raw fish dishes will be banned with immediate effect. 

NEA said tests by AVA and NEA showed that freshwater fish have “significantly higher” bacterial contamination than saltwater fish, and are likely to present higher risks of infection when consumed raw.

It added that effective immediately, all retail food establishments that wish to sell ready-to-eat raw fish dishes are to use only saltwater fish intended for raw consumption.

According to the authorities, such fish are usually bred or harvested from cleaner waters and stored and distributed according to “appropriate cold chain management practices”.  MOH, AVA and NEA said the ban is in place to help protect consumers and “give greater peace of mind” to the public, ahead of Chinese New Year.

Back in July 2015, MOH tried to give the public a ‘peace of mind’ by assuring us that there’s ‘no proven link between eating raw fish and GBS‘. An infectious disease expert argued that although GBS is not traditionally food-borne and does not affect healthy immune systems, food handlers may transmit the killer bacteria to food products.

The authorities have also not provided details on the tests which they conducted, i.e which stalls or country they were sourced from, storage, farming conditions etc. But until there’s a thorough investigation into the cause of the GBS outbreak, considered to be the first of its kind and the biggest IN THE WORLD (Recent GBS outbreak ‘biggest in the world’, 6 Dec 15, ST), this CNY we’ll have to settle for lo hei-ing with canned abalone or salmon (from reliable sources, of course).

Between July and the recent blanket ban, we’ve read horror stories of victims requiring BRAIN surgery, had limbs amputated, lapsing into 10 day comas, and one dying from the outbreak. But it wasn’t until Nov 28 this year when MOH confirmed the link between raw fish and the aggressive Type III ST283 GBS strain and hawkers were told to stop selling such dishes. One forum writer questioned the lag time between the health advisory and sales ban. We should also ask if ST283 is a recently evolved strain, since we’ve been generally having raw snakehead, toman and tilapia without any problems since the 30’s.

I wonder if things would have turned out differently if people hadn’t sent out warning messages initially, which, ironically, many dismissed as a prank, a hoax. Because, well, you’re supposed to take such viral messages with a pinch of salt. It’s SOCIAL MEDIA after all; a platform for inane jokes, political rumours and, soon to come, Christmas greeting spam.

This is one Whatsapp message in full, according to Reddit.

Hi all, I am sharing this because my boss is now warded in NUH because of painful right arm. He ate raw fish last Wed at Ayer Rajah mkt.

He wants me to share the following with as many people.

For the past few weeks the hospitals islandwide have been noticing a surge of young and old men who have been coming in sick with fevers and painful swollen joints.

There has been a particular strain of bacteria that has been isolated from the blood (Group B streptococcus) and this bacterium is usually very weak and mild, but we found this latest strain to be particularly virulent.

The common unifying factor behind this outbreak is that all the patients had consumed 鱼生 (the kind we like from hawker stalls, with a lot of sesame oil and pepper) within the past week.

Nationwide we are still collecting enough info to prove that it’s a particular farm that has been supplying these fish to the hawkers that have contaminated waters.

That’s why not on media yet.

So far places implicated are maxwell food centre, Alexandra village, to name a few.

For the sake of health just avoid 鱼生 for the next few weeks.

Wait until the official news is out where NEA manages to find the source of the contaminated fish.

Now that we know this ‘particularly virulent’ strain has been confirmed and people have suffered tremendously from it, does it mean that we shouldn’t call bullshit on such social media health scares outright? After all, even Dr Google at the time told you that GBS could not be transmitted through food, and only those with a hardcore passion for deadly vermin would know that ST283 was identified as a ‘novel sequence‘ in Hong Kong, according to a Journal of Clinical Microbiology paper (2006). For the rest of us, we either choose to ignore and go on with our lives, play it safe and abstain until official word is out, or fan the flames by bringing sashimi and cerviche into it, instilling panic to food lovers and retailers everywhere.

What if someone sent a mass Whatsapp about a lethal pathogen that had evolved to withstand boiling temperatures and may be associated with see-hum? How does the layman tell the difference between what is merely ‘improbable’ (this GBS outbreak) or what is ‘impossible’?

If anything, this GBS saga serves to remind us all not to take food hygiene and cooking methods for granted. In the meantime, you can continue to enjoy see-hum (cockles), despite its checkered history with Hepatitis A infection, and thank Neptune that we didn’t ban the shellfish back then, despite the fact that the creature, being a filter-feeder, has the ability to concentrate viruses from sewage-polluted waters. If you’re a diehard fan of yusheng and willing to bear the risk of amputation, however, you can still go up to Malaysia for your fix before vendors in JB raise their prices just to cater to deprived Singaporeans.


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