(Originally published on SFA Facebook)
She does all these under inquisitive glances from diners in the premises, who must be thinking: “What on earth could this lady be doing?”
A Different Type of Scientist
As part of the Risk & Situational Reporting team in NCFS, 28-year-old Renuka is not your typical scientist.
“When you talk about scientists, you think of people wearing white coats, working in labs and hunched over test tubes. I don’t fit that image at all.”
Renuka is a data scientist who divides her time between writing risk communications materials in the form of scientific reports or articles and conducting focus studies.
“Doing focus studies is not just for research. Nor are we trying to find fault with the food operators or establishments we are surveying. We want to understand the potential food safety risks and find best practices to share with the industry and consumers. Our findings will be useful for policy making to fulfil SFA’s mission of ensuring and securing a safe supply of food for Singapore.”
Tool #1: Communication skills
Renuka’s role requires good communication skills – both spoken and written.
“Most food operators are sceptical of our intentions when we approach them to collect samples or interview them. They think we are undercover detectives out to take enforcement actions against them. So we have to help them understand our role and convince them that their cooperation has an impact to overall food safety.”
Renuka also writes risk communications materials that provide useful information on high-risk food items and their hazards.
“There will always be risks in food, no matter how strong our food safety system is. Being informed upfront on the risks present in our food will empower consumers and help the industry do the right things. The government can only do this much.”
“Food safety is a joint responsibility. Hence, I’m working on educational materials for SFA’s website that will help industry and consumers play their part.”
Renuka is currently working on a focus studyon cold desserts and she is determining how, why, when, and where bacteria could have been introduced during the food preparation process. She spends at least a day per week to visit dessert stalls at food courts, collecting samples and conducting questionnaires for the focus study.
“Cold desserts have a higher chance of being contaminated with foodborne pathogens such as bacteria, as most of the ingredients are not cooked.”
“There could be many reasons for high bacteria count. It could be failing to store the slab of ice at the designated temperature. It could also be poor maintenance of appliances or the improper storage of ingredients. It could be anything and that’s what we are trying to find out.”
“With our findings, we can identify and highlight areas of concerns to the industry and reduce the bacteria count for cold desserts. This is important as food with high bacteria count could contribute to foodborne illnesses and be a threat to public health.”
Tool #2: The sample collection kit
Renuka brings a kit for every sample collection, packed in a cooler bag. The kit contains gloves, swabs, sterile/sealable bags, and an ATP meter.
“Swabs are put into the ATP meter, which gives a measurement of any organic matter on the surface. On its own, the reading doesn’t add value, but combined with findings from tests for pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, we can use the data meaningfully.”
Where Could It Have Gone Wrong?
That’s the perennial question, which Renuka seeks to answer at work.
In another focus study on catering premises in Singapore, she’s looking to see if there is any correlation between hygiene practices and bacterial quality of food. The study also seeks to understand business practices and food distribution patterns that may affect food safety.
Renuka hopes that the study will help provide important insights that can be used to educate the licensees and reduce the risk of gastro-enteritis outbreaks in the catering industry.
“For example, if we can draw insights on the ratio between number of staff and amount of food prepared, we could perhaps recommend a minimum number of staff to serving ratio to reduce food hygiene lapses arising from manpower constraints.”
Tool #3: Asking the right questions
An important part of the focus study is the questionnaire at the end of each visit to the caterers.
“When we conduct the questionnaire, we have to remove any bias and not influence the answers. We also try to find inconsistencies in their responses.”
Renuka’s role is a balancing act of team and individual work.
“Take the cold desserts study for example. It’s important to quickly and properly collect, label, and pack the samples to send for testing. Good teamwork ensures that mistakes are kept to a minimal.”
On the other hand, writing reports is a solo task that Renuka enjoys doing.
“When work gets hectic, it’s easy to forget why we are doing the study. Sitting down and writing helps to collect my thoughts and get me back on track.”
Tool #4: A curious mind + willingness to learn new things
Renuka’s appetite for curiosity has led her to many interesting experiences.
When she studied molecular biology in polytechnic, Renuka became interested in marketing and communications. She then decided to take up business management in university so she can have “a taste of the corporate world”.
After stints in various government agencies and private corporations, she took up a role in food and water surveillance, previously under the National Environment Agency (NEA). A year later, it evolved into her current role in SFA, combining her love for science, marketing, and communications.
“Life has a funny way of leading you back to the place you started out from.”
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 14, 2020