Dateline Southeast Asia

H5N1 outbreak progresses in northern Malaysia

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Ho chi minh Shelf life

A week after the first cases of H5N1 avian flu were found in northern Malaysia, the outbreak has spread to more districts, though at the time of writing no human infections have been reported.

Kelantan state’s executive council met to declare a “state disaster​”, which mandates the use of all necessary resources to control the outbreak.

The label will bring with it more state departments to the effort. Currently only the state’s veterinary department has been involved in operation to stem the spread of the virus, which has been identified in nearly two dozen villages in an area that shares a border with Thailand.

Some 25,000 birds have been culled so far as part of the government’s response, according to official figures.

The highly pathogenic virus was spotted after some free-range chickens died outside the state capital, Kota Bharu.

The veterinary department understands that the virus might have been spread though infected fighting cocks, as happened in Malaysia’s last outbreak, in 2004. State authorities have asked residents to avoid any contact with cock fighting.

Local and federal officials have also urged the public to take hygiene precautions and report any contact they have had with dead birds.

Federal health teams have been put on alert ahead in case the virus were detected in humans outside Kelantan, though Noor Hisham, the health ministry’s director general, said that the infection appeared to be contained within the mainland state.

More stories from Southeast Asia…

Singapore looks to cash in from shelf life-extending packaging

Singapore’s state science agency is well on the way to launching a new packaging material that can extend the shelf life of foods by at least 50%.


The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) announced in late 2014 that it would lead an industry consortium in a project to develop and test new active packaging that protects perishables by keeping them away from contact with oxygen.

The consortium would include a number of local and international companies, such as Mitsui Chemicals, Toyo Ink and Pieget Chemicals. Its focus was to formulate a layered plastic that was not only extremely effective at keeping out oxygen and moisture, but would also absorb oxygen any that may be present in the packaging.

Two years later, five scientists led by Li Xu, of A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, has developed a three-layer laminated plastic film with a clay-polymer composite inserted between two plastic layers.

Dr Li told the Straits Times​ that the plastic layers were made of common plastic films like polyethylene terephthalate, which are widely used in food packaging, while the clay is naturally sourced.

"The special structure of the material creates a highly efficient barrier that prevents gas molecules like oxygen from coming into contact with the contents of the package​," he said. The material has been tested more than 20 times on food such as grains, cakes and bread. 

Dou Yee Enterprises, one of A*STAR’s research partners with which it is now working to make retail product, estimates that the recyclable material will block 150 times more oxygen than normal plastic packaging. Cakes with an expiry window of a week would lengthen to at least nine days with the material, its tests found.

This could even put a dent in Singapore’s growing food waste problem, which grew by nearly half in the decade to 2016. 

The previous year, the 450-square-kilometre island produced 785,500 tonnes of grocery waste, much of which was from items left unsold after their best-before date.

In America, it is estimated that arbitrary expiry dates and “food freshness​” labels may have also been responsible for premature food disposal by more than 90% of Americans.

Improvements to mundane materials like the plastic wrapping in your local supermarket are often taken for granted but technology proves that such innovations could significantly change the world we live in​,” said Andy Hor, director of A*STAR’s materials research institute, when the project began. 

Our new material will help reduce food wastage considerably, and allow consumers to more accurately identify when food actually spoils​.”

Saigon gets first ever food safety department

The former deputy director of Ho Chi Minh City’s health department has been named head of the city’s first food safety board.


Pham Khanh Phong Lan was appointed by the city’s chairman for a term that will end in December 2019. She will be served by two deputies, one seconded from the health department and the other from the agriculture department.

Formerly Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City has never enjoyed the services of an agency responsible for food hygiene and safety, despite repeated attempts by residents to force the municipality into carrying out regular inspections of markets and food traders. 

A number of different agencies were previously responsible for the management of food safety in the city. But because the responsibilities for each department were never actually demarcated, the combined agencies have gained a reputation for poor food-safety control.

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