How to Spot Contaminated Food in Your Child’s Canteen?

May 8, 2022   Return


Every parent desires to have the entire day planned, to wake up early, prepare breakfast, pack lunch-boxes, get the kids ready for school and send them off (right at the front of the school gate if possible). While that’s an ultimate vision, most parents aren’t so lucky especially when other obligations tie them down. Perfect parenting or not, sending your child off to school with lunch money alone is not enough. When it comes to food, there should also be a responsible concern on what your child is eating in school. Apart from prioritizing a healthy diet, consuming uncontaminated food should top the priority list too.



According to the Ministry of Health Malaysia, food contamination refers to food that has been corrupted with another substance – either physical, biological or chemical. Biological contamination refers to food that is contaminated by organisms or substances they produce. This includes biological matter produced by humans, rodents, insects and microorganisms. Bacteria and viruses are typically the two biggest causes of biological contamination and can result in some of the most common types of food poisoning including salmonella, E. coli, listeria and norovirus.

Physical contamination is when a foreign object contaminates food, objects such as steel wool, sponges and utensils. Chemical contamination refers to food that has been contaminated with a natural or artificial chemical substance. These contaminants are particularly dangerous as they expose people to any number of toxic substances, some of which can be fatal. Chemicals can also contaminate food at any time of the food process, whether by pesticides transferred from the soil the food is grown in or during the manufacturing process. Storing chemicals separately from food is essential to help protect against chemical contamination.


Incidents of food poisoning in schools have happened a lot and we hear in the media of outbreaks almost annually. Detecting contaminated food can be tricky but there is a simple way to do this which is to be observant of various causal factors. Food vendors are hired to cater to children in schools, some of them are unable to adhere to safe practices and this will put the children in danger of food poisoning. Most cases can be avoided if food handlers practise proper measures when preparing food and it is every parent’s responsibility to play the social health inspector for the sake of the safety of every schoolgoing child.

“Food contamination refers to food that has been corrupted with another substance – either physical, biological or chemical.”


A simple observation of how the canteen operates and handles food can give you a general picture of what to expect. Check if food is displayed properly, if they are covered and if they use thongs to serve unpacked food. Observe how they manage raw food and that it is not mixed with cooked food as this could cause cross- biological contamination. It is also important to observe the canteen’s food storage area – are the boxed items left on the floor and if they are accessible to rodents and pests?

Check also the condition of their refrigerator and what items are stored and not stored in it, if seafood, eggs and milk are stored at the right temperature and what are left unrefrigerated and exposed in the open. Note also if they reheat their food, and how quickly they refrigerate leftovers. This may seem like a trivial matter, but cooked food that are exposed to room temperature for more than 2 hours have the potential to attract biological contaminants onto them and therefore should sometimes not even be considered to be refrigerated as leftovers. Foods such as eggs, cheese, milk and coconut rice (nasi lemak) for instance can biologically degrade fast when left in room temperature and may be best discarded if not consumed after a long preparation time. Contaminated water can also be the main cause of food poisoning. Rightfully, water should be filtered and boiled when it is served to children, but this is most often not the case. In practice, vendors are more prone to preparing drinks from unboiled and unfiltered water due to convenience.



Some canteens can have poorly managed facilities, but cleanliness should never be compromised no matter how limited the resources may be. Eating utensils for instance can carry various contaminants if they are not washed properly, dried and stored well. The sink in which our children wash their hands is another matter of concern. Take note if children are provided with good hand soaps and if the sinks are regularly washed or not. A dirty sink can harbor billions of bacteria which thrives in such environment and they are easily spread through each kid who uses the sink. Trash bins too should be emptied regularly and kept closed to prevent flies from vectoring pathogens that can cross-contaminate well prepared food.



While such observations in a canteen will give you a rough idea of how to evaluate the quality of food produced by the canteen vendor and the potential hazards your child could face consuming their meals, it is also important to teach the young ones to identify spoilt and soiled food, and to be vigilant in observing the cleanliness of their canteen vendor. Train them to purchase boxed or canned drinks instead, advise them to stay away from food which has too many flies around it and to use their sensory to detect food that has gone bad through smell and texture before consumption. Food safety is everyone’s responsibility and when canteens are poorly managed, as a parent, you could take the proactive measure to inform respective authorities to take necessary action. You could even start an awareness programme with the rest of the parents through your child’s school Parents Teachers Association (PTA, also known as PIBG) and get everyone involved in making changes for the better. HT

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