Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Full Story (For Now): Two Mysterious Suspected Mass Food Poisonings at Yale-NUS

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Xie Yihui
Yihui (Class of 23) is the editor-in-chief at The Octant. She enjoys losing herself in nature, a movie, a book or a conversation.

Story | Michael Sagna, Managing Editor and Xie Yihui, Editor-in-Chief

Photo Credit | Tan Shan Min


“The morning after the meal which supposedly made everyone get sick, I woke up in excruciating pain in the fetal position on my bed,” Damion Horn ‘23 shared. “I got up and used the restroom, and then I tried to go back to sleep but the pain came back. It was like that for the whole morning.”

“I was talking to my suitemate, and he had the same experience, and then a friend of ours we met with for lunch said that they’d also been sick all morning. Everyone started to slowly realize that we all felt the same way.”

On the day before Horn felt unwell, Jan. 19, Class of 2024 Representatives Joleen Teo ‘24 and Gyuyong Choi ’24 received complaints from several students feeling unwell after eating food at the dining hall, and conducted an informal poll on their class Telegram group. 68 students reported having similar experiences. 

Events unfolded in quick succession. After just over a week, another similar incident occurred. External inspectors intervened—students were surveyed, kitchens checked, and bento boxes issued. Now nearly a month later, the investigation is still inconclusive while a pillar of campus social life remains temporarily halted.

Scrambling to Control the Situation

Student Government representatives thereafter convened a team to further examine the extent of the issue across classes, according to Nur Hazeem Abdul Nasser ’22, President of the Yale-NUS College Student Government.

Within the space of a day, students received two separate forms: one from the Student Government, and another from the Dean of Students Office (DoS).

To gauge the extent of the issue, each class representative circulated a Google form within their respective class group chats on Jan. 19 at around 5 pm, according to Nasser. This form asked affected students to describe their symptoms, which of the meals they had eaten at the dining hall, and for how long they experienced them.

In a meeting with The Octant on Feb. 10, Dean of Students Dave Stanfield said such a measure might violate privacy laws: “We discourage any student group or individual from sending out a survey without first getting explicit written permission to do so, because it could be a violation of both internal policies of Yale-NUS, but also potentially the national privacy law, PDPA.”

“You have to follow really strict requirements for collecting medical information, ” he said, “[the Student Government] had a really good intention behind their effort, and they can mobilize quickly, and it was helpful to us in the sense that they were able to tell us that there was a problem on campus before [DoS] even knew.

He added that DoS is trying to come up with a better process so that students have access to and share this type of information through official channels rather than a student channel. This will help to ensure that student data and identities are properly protected.

In an email sent to Yale-NUS students on Jan. 20, Dr. Stanfield announced that the college was aware of the situation and urged students feeling unwell to seek medical attention from University Health Centre (UHC) or, if necessary, the National University Hospital.

This email also included the link to another form, created by DoS and Sodexo, the current food caterer for Yale-NUS, urging students who had consumed a meal at a dining hall and experienced adverse health impacts to fill it in.

This email, sent at 11:14 am, gave a deadline of 4 pm of the same day, initially giving students just under five hours to respond.

That night, Nasser posted on the Yale-NUS Facebook page to announce an extension of the deadline of this form to 10 am the following morning.

This swift publication of a form consolidating student accounts is in stark contrast to a similar, albeit smaller-scale, incident in early 2019, when 20 students complained of a wide-ranging set of symptoms after eating food from the dining hall, The Octant reported. During that case, Sodexo conducted an internal investigation which found them innocent due to insufficient evidence.

Following the complaints in 2019, Richard Ellison, the previous General Manager of Sodexo at Yale-NUS, expressed reluctance to publish a questionnaire, telling The Octant that “If you put that open question out to an audience this big, you [are] almost inviting problems for yourself.” 

This time, it seems, the scale of the incident was too large to be ignored.

Limited Transparency 

In order to get more clarity on the investigation process, The Octant sent an extensive list of questions to the Sodexo team, enquiring about the data collection, investigation procedure, and aftermath if Sodexo were to be found responsible.

Kevin Low, Operation Director for Schools and Universities for Sodexo, responded with an email  largely similar to its message to the college sent on Jan. 22, reinforcing Sodexo’s commitment to the “safety and wellbeing of the students, staff, and community,” and stating that it is “sorry to learn about the discomfort some of the students have felt.”

To answer our question on the investigation process, Mr. Low also included a link to the Singapore Food Agency’s website for “more information about SFA’s food safety process.”

Unfortunately, the link only provides outlines of food safety practices, rather than explaining the investigative procedures for possible violations of these measures.

In a meeting with The Octant on Feb. 10, Dr Stanfield said: “I am surprised when I hear stories about Sodexo not working hard enough or that there is some sort of conspiracy. They are a large corporation that relies on strong health and safety protocols and good customer feedback. It’s in their best interest to avoid [food-related incidents] and resolve issues as quickly as possible. I have observed Sodexo’s management working diligently behind the scenes, in full cooperation with the Ministry of Health’s investigation and following their advice closely. 

“It’s easy to forget that for a corporation, this situation is their worst nightmare. The reputation of a catering company relies on health and safety and offering food that is satisfying to their clients. Sodexo has been very cooperative,” he added.

External Inspection

On Jan. 21, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Singapore Food Agency (SFA) came to Yale-NUS to investigate the incident, Dr. Stanfield confirmed.

In our email correspondence with DoS on Jan. 23, Muhammed Erfaan, Senior Executive at DoS, stated that “the official investigation has since been taken over by the MOH and SFA,” while adding that “Sodexo has given its full cooperation.”

Dr. Stanfield also confirmed that “a large proportion of students indicated that they experienced mild to moderate symptoms, with most indicating that the adverse reactions had resolved on their own, without the need for prescription medication or medical attention.”

Dennis Aw, Director of Infrastructure, Safety, & Security, is responsible for contact with MOH and SFA in the ongoing inspection. Replying to The Octant’s request for comment, he stated: “I am just as anxious to know the results as anyone else. Until results are out, I am holding back all non-essential calls or enquiries (including chasers) to authorities so as to give them some space and time to work on this objectively.”

There was a sense of finality in the way he ended his response. 

“I hope The Octant can do the same.”

Déjà vu

Few would expect it, and yet while the investigation was ongoing a similar incident occurred just a week later. 

On Friday, Jan. 29, several students once again reported adverse health symptoms which they attributed to consuming meals at the dining halls. 

Following the report, Infrastructure’s Health and Safety team alerted the SFA and sent out an official questionnaire together with DoS.

This triggered a wave of precautionary measures, largely similar to those taken last year during Circuit Breaker, Singapore’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Two days later, DoS sent out an email at 4:14 pm, informing the college community that starting from that day’s dinner service, students would receive their meals in bento boxes provided by an external vendor. Grab and Go services would also be temporarily suspended.

Explaining the bento meal arrangement, DoS said this would ensure that all food is provided by vendors that are not Sodexo, in order to not impede the ongoing investigations.

The college also decided to suspend the distribution of pre-packed food at events organized on campus with immediate effect.

This announcement came at a time when Brewhouse, the student-run coffee-making project, had just resumed operations and had to stop operating. Similar restrictions applied to residential colleges’ butteries, informal student-run dining services, which had been due to open that week.

Both Brewhouse and the butteries have been closed since last year due to COVID-19. The long-awaited resumption of service has now, however, been halted “until further notice,” according to Martin Choo, one of the buttery managers.

In an interview with The Octant, buttery worker Nikita Taratorin ‘23 discussed what he felt was a frustrating experience. Taratorin spoke of reading an email from the DoS sent to him by his buttery manager, describing how Dr. Stanfield attributed the buttery closure to “public scrutiny over food-borne illnesses.”

“Butteries are such an essential part of our community … it’s just heartbreaking [to not be able to reopen the buttery],” Taratorin shared.

In the email to the college, Dr. Stanfield explained the added measures. “This contingency effort is a joint decision taken by the College and Sodexo to eliminate any possibility of a food-borne illness originating from the current operations. An approved vendor has also been engaged to perform another round of deep cleaning of the kitchens.”

ABC: A Bento Controversy

Issues quickly followed the introduction of bento boxes. On Feb. 1, just one day after bento boxes started being provided to students, dining halls ran out of food at 7:20 pm. (For context, the dinner service at dining halls usually runs from 5.45-8.30 pm.)

Student Government quickly attempted to remedy this by creating a scheme whereby students who ate out that evening could claim a reimbursement of up to $7, provided that they uploaded evidence of a receipt by midnight.

Despite this, the situation did not immediately improve. The following day many vegetarians and vegans who went to the dining hall for lunch found no boxes left which they could eat. Ironically, that evening non-vegans were forced to take vegan, or even gluten-free bentos due to shortages.

Caption: One student commented that “EVERYTHING IS FRIED: fried Rice, fried carrot cake, fried noodles; no whole grain carbs! Vegetables make up only the smallest compartment, despite info boards in dining halls saying that vegetables should fill half of our plate; no raw vegetables/salad” 

In a survey conducted by the Student Government on Feb. 3 from 12:45 pm to 4 pm, most students responded that they were generally satisfied by the quality and quantity of the food provided. However, a majority of them expressed dissatisfaction with the nutrition (62.37%) and variety (58.55%) of food provided, with an additional 28.13% of respondents reporting not being able to get a meal due to food shortages at least once.

The results of this survey were raised by Student Government in discussions with Sodexo, who agreed on a variety of measures including, but not limited to, increasing the supply of bento boxes, reducing quantities of fried food, increasing vegetables and proteins, and improving labelling.

Addressing the food shortages, Dr. Stanfield has “personally reached out” to the Sodexo director responsible for all school and university operations in Singapore to ask for an immediate solution. Maintaining that “No student should be left without a meal,” DoS purchased UTown Fine Foods vouchers, which would be distributed should there be another food shortage.

The community has noted that the quality of bento boxes has been unstable over the course of three weeks. In the “YNC Spoon & Forks” Telegram chat group, students frequently raised complaints about the nutritional balance and quantity of food. On one such occasion, a small piece of fried fish was found in Eva Liu ‘22’s vegetarian bento box (Figure 3).

Figure 3 | A piece of fried fish is found in a vegetarian breakfast on Feb. 17. 

Photo credit Eva Liu 

Responding to general concerns about quality, the Dining Experience Team (DXT) said on Feb. 15 that they have relayed the feedback to Sodexo representatives, who have called the third-party vendor this evening. “We expect changes to be made as soon as possible,” said Nicol Yong ‘23, student associate of DXT.

The Mystery Remains (For Now)

In a long awaited email on Feb. 3 , Dr. Stanfield announced what came as a shock to many. “Officials from the MOH and SFA released preliminary results from the initial investigation,” he stated. “The results from the food samples, food handlers’ screening tests, and the kitchen inspection did not reveal anything that might cause gastro-related symptoms [our emphasis].”

Currently, the authorities are looking into the causes of the second incident through “extensive testing across a wide spectrum of variables,” including dining operations, cooking preparation processes, food and water samples, and a general inspection of the kitchen or servery facilities and appliances. They have also alerted UHC to assist them in identifying other possible causes.

Preliminary findings have found no significant issues with kitchen and servery operations. While the MOH did find a food-borne pathogen in one Sodexo food handler’s stool analysis, they do not believe that this has any links to either of the cases. This staff will be isolated and return to work only after two more screenings, said Cory Owen, Associate Dean of Students.

In his email, Dr. Stanfield also urged students to volunteer to provide MOH with stool samples, noting that, until Feb. 3, only two had done so.

The college expects the current bento meal arrangement to continue for “one to two weeks,” as it awaits preliminary microbial test results from Sodexo food handlers and students who have submitted their stool samples, Dr. Stanfield said in the same email.

Dr. Stanfield’s email provided renewed hope that life would soon be back to normal, yet without any indication of either of the suspected food poisonings’ causes. Though preliminary results from the first investigation have been released, the college still awaits the report’s full findings, as well as the results from the second enquiry, which is set to be released on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Just a month ago, it would have been hard to imagine that the college would now be applying a fresh round of restrictions to curtail an outbreak other than COVID-19. Once again, college life has changed, and students now find themselves wishing they could return to the previous “new normal.”

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