Thursday, April 24, 2008

Malaysia's National Dish - Food Poisoning

What is it with nasi lemak? This national dish of Malaysia has been linked to yet another food poisoning outbreak among school children.

The New Straits Times reported yesterday that 120 students at Sekolah Kebagsaan Taman Dato Harun 1 school became ill after eating nasi lemak from the school's canteen. The students, who ranged from 10 to 12 years of age, complained of stomach pain – some within minutes of having eaten the nasi lemak. One girl, who vomited after her recess snack, said that the dish "...tasted terrible."

This is the second outbreak linked to nasi lemak in less than two weeks. I reported on April 15th that more than 100 Malaysian students were stricken with food poisoning after eating a snack of nasi lemak. In that outbreak, also, the incubation period was described as being just a few minutes.

The very short incubation period experienced by victims of both outbreaks may be due to one of two possibilities – a toxic chemical or Bacillus cereus in the rice. Some strains of B. cereus produce a toxin that causes a very rapid reaction. Known as "Chinese restaurant syndrome", it is usually associated with rice that has been cooked, then held at room temperature before being reheated or served.

Nasi lemak consists of rice, which has been cooked in coconut milk. Typically it is served with a garnish, such as cooked eggs, cucumber or nuts and sometimes with a sauce. It is a perfect feeding ground for bacteria.

The Education Department is investigating the most recent outbreak and will issue a "warning" to the canteen operator if he is found to have been negligent. The operator's contract may also be reviewed.

I would add one more element to the canteen operator's "punishment". He should be forced to eat his own nasi lemak.

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