Suspension of Hotpot Culture's food licence lifted, but NEA will still take them to court

[UPDATE on Tuesday, 3rd February 2015 at 7:30pm: Adding update from NEA on suspension being lifted]

The standing suspension against beleaguered restaurant Hotpot Culture was on Tuesday lifted, announced the National Environment Agency (NEA).

The restaurant will still be brought to court, however, because it had served food that was unfit for human consumption, a spokesperson added in a statement shared with Yahoo Singapore on Tuesday evening.

Responding to the lift of the suspension, Hotpot Culture owner Lim Choon Kok announced in a separate press release that he will have a dine-for-free day on Friday, as well as discounts on buffets for its members in February and March.

At the same time, he said he is offering a full refund to all customers who dined at the restaurant on 9 January, the day when the rat was first found in the buffet.

In a previous interview, Lim told Yahoo Singapore that he wanted to serve the free food “as a way to apologise” to the public after a dead rat was found in one of its vegetable dishes earlier this month.
“I am really sorry that a lapse happened at our restaurant. I hope that the public will please give me a chance, a helping hand to start again,” said an emotional Lim, 58, who has been coming to his empty restaurant every day for the past eleven days to assist in investigations.
He added that the restaurant would give a full refund to any of the patrons who had eaten there on the day of the incident (9 Jan).
This comes after NEA said “enforcement action” would be taken against Hotpot Culture after investigations found dried rat droppings in the restaurant’s storeroom floor and in the false ceiling in the kitchen.
Lim has since spent about $3,000 sealing up the gaps in his kitchen’s false ceiling and the area around his storeroom.
He also engaged a pest control operator to conduct rat treatment every week after two rats were caught at the premises.
Staff were seen scrubbing the floors of the restaurant when Yahoo Singapore visited Hotpot Culture on Tuesday afternoon.

“Not a hygiene but careless problem”
While Lim readily admits that it was the restaurant’s fault that a rat had made its way into a dish, he told Yahoo Singapore this was not because the restaurant was dirty but because his chefs had been careless.
He believes the rat discovered the pre-cooked salted vegetable dish  because his chef leaves the stainless steel lid of the pot slightly open overnight to prevent the vegetables from going bad.
“The next morning, he will fire up the stove and heat it up. We didn’t know there was a rat in it,” said Lim, who is “still in shock” over the incident.
“I admit we handled the matter unprofessionally because all of us couldn’t believe that it had happened. In my six years of running a restaurant I never imagined this could happen,” he said.
The vegetable dish has since been taken off the menu and the restaurant now has a policy that all food should be cooked and consumed on the same day.
Lim told Yahoo Singapore he believes the rats came from the lower floors at Marina Square, where renovation and construction work is ongoing.
A quick check with several other tenants at the mall showed that other shops – both retail and food and beverage – have also spotted rats in the mall since construction work started.
“I think he’s just very unlucky that it got into the food. We have been complaining to the management about the rat issue many times before this. It’s out of control,” said a tenant who declined to be named.
“Very depressed”
Lim said that since the restaurant closed for business, he has been under tremendous stress.
“I feel so stressed, and my family, they are so stressed too. I don’t know how to make this right,” he said.
“Eleven days feels like eleven years.”
He said the restaurant has thrown away about $2,000 worth of food in the past 10 days since its suspension.
“We sterilize and clean the tables after each group of diners, as well as the floors. This is our standard practice. I don’t know why this has happened to us,” said Lim.
Before the incident, the restaurant had been rated “B” by NEA for its cleanliness and hygiene.
“I really hope NEA gives us the green light soon.”
Lim faces a fine of up to $2,000 for selling unclean food, and will also be issued six demerit points under NEA’s points demerit system.

Under NEA’s points demerit system, six demerit points are given for serious public health offenses.

A licensee who accumulates 12 demerit points or more within 12 months faces a suspension of two or four weeks, or may have its license revoked.