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Is that cake on display fresh?

There they sit, scrumptious looking baked goodies that tempt the taste buds.

But just how fresh is that quiche or cake or pie or all manner of tantalizing treats behind glass displays?

Housewife Janice Tan, 69, bought a cold quiche about three weeks ago from a popular bakery chain, only to discover mold on it when she heated it up at home the next afternoon.

She recalled, “I was disappointed and shocked that what I thought was a reputable cafe would sell an item that was not fresh. Such extensive mold does not grow overnight. The quiche had to have been more than just a day old.”

A spokesman for the National Environment Agency said it had received feedback on moldy or spoilt food 446 times so far this year.

He added, “Licensees, food operators and food handlers have the legal and moral responsibility to ensure that food sold at retail outlets is prepared hygienically and thus, safe for consumption.”

The NEA says it inspects food retail outlets regularly and takes action against errant operators. It also carries out regular food sampling and penalizes operators whose food is found to be contaminated.

Those convicted of lapses in hygiene may be liable to a fine not exceeding S$2,000 ($1,540) and demerit points.

While time-stamping regulations ― which stipulate that food kept between 5 and 60 degree Celsius should be consumed within four hours of its preparation ― currently apply only to caterers, the NEA suggests that all food vendors can adopt the principle, such as when chillers to keep food safe are lacking.

It adds that cafes, which generally prepare food in smaller portions to ensure freshness, are required to keep confectionary products in chillers with temperatures kept between 0 and 4 degree Celsius.

A check with 25 cafes, cake shops and bakeries here found that none kept their items beyond two days. These outlets range from hotel set-ups and well-known chains to artisan cake shops.

Some bakeries, such as Artisan Boulangerie Co., which has seven outlets islandwide, said that the oldest item in their display window or chiller never clocks more than a few hours.

In fact, most, including BreadTalk and Bengawan Solo and boutique cake shops such as And All Things Delicious in Jalan Sultan and Plain Vanilla, which has outlets in Tiong Bahru and Holland Village, told SundayLife! they bake their items fresh daily, sometimes twice or throughout the day, then discard or donate the leftovers to charities.

Most cafes, hotels, cake shops and bakeries adopt a “first-in, first-out” policy.

This means that the items that are baked and displayed first are sold first.

For instance, when a batch of croissants in Tiong Bahru Bakery that was displayed in the morning is replenished in the afternoon, the second batch will be placed furthest away from the staff to ensure that the earlier batch is sold first.
Cupcakes are on display. (123RF)
Cupcakes are on display. (123RF)

Dean Brettschneider, 45, founder of Baker & Cook, which also adopts the “first-in, first-out” method, says his cafe has spent $20,000 to put in place a set of operating procedures that include protocols for food hygiene.

“In the production kitchen, for instance, our staff always label when the products have been baked so that the sales staff know which ones to use first,” he said.

Such safety measures should allay the fears of consumers such as playschool teacher Rosalind Lee, 36.

“There is nothing more unpalatable than being disappointed by beautiful baked items that turn out to be dry or stale,” said the mother of two.

“When you pay S$8 to S$9 for a slice of cake, I would expect it to be baked that same day or the day before, at the very most.”

Still, as Mrs. Tan’s experience has shown, not all cafes practice what they preach. Some staff may not follow their cafe’s first-in, first-out principle.

To avoid confusion and the hassle of having to keep track of which batch was put out first, some cafes do away with this rule.

Instead, Carpenter & Cook, which has two outlets in Upper Bukit Timah and Upper Thomson, waits for the whole batch of its offerings, such as cakes and tarts, to sell out before restocking with a new batch, said its baker and coowner Shenn Sim, 34.

Quiches and croissants usually sell out within the day, and what is not sold is discarded, while cakes usually sell out the day after they are baked.

At cafes, items such as tarts, pies and quiches that have been blast chilled ― where the temperature of food is brought down quickly ― are usually showcased in display chillers. Countertops are reserved for pastries, butter cakes and muffins, which are usually meant to be eaten at room temperature.

According to cafes and bakeries, items such as croissants, danishes and scones have a one-day shelf life, as they tend to go stale quickly in Singapore’s humid climate. Items such as cakes, however, can keep for up to two days if stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

The storage duration also depends on the type of cake and whether it contains items such as fresh fruit or fresh cream. For instance, butter cakes can be kept for longer.

Mrs. Vanessa Kenchington, 30, baker-owner of Plain Vanilla, stopped selling cakes to other businesses because she could not ascertain if cafes were “deviating from the recommended storage” and wanted to ensure “optimal taste” of her products.

Her cakes, which are baked daily without preservatives, are meant to be eaten at room temperature on the day they are baked, although they can keep for two to three days either at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

She said, “Once the cakes leave our kitchen to be sold at another cafe, we have no control over how they are stored and displayed and for how long they are kept on display.”

Food From The Heart, which distributes bread to the less fortunate and has 115 cafes and hotels on its donation panel, usually accepts only breads, buns and pastries such as croissants for its 153 beneficiaries. It also has strict guidelines for the food it accepts.

The items are stored in bags or boxes and kept overnight in refrigerators. Cakes and muffins are dealt with case-by-case.

Ms. Jeneve Lee, 47, the charity’s manager, said, “Food safety is very important to us, which is why we do not accept buns with wet fillings such as tuna mayonnaise, or quiches that contain egg and may spoil easily. Items are collected by our volunteers and arrive at the centers in less than one hour.”

Cafes and bakeries may offer recommendations on storage and consumption for takeaway items, but the onus is on consumers to store items properly or consume them soon after purchase.

At The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, for example, where its oldest cake is never displayed for more than 12 hours, cake boutique staff advise customers to consume pastries within four hours of purchase or to place them in the refrigerator as soon as possible, said the hotel’s executive chef Sandro Falbo, 48.

At the end of the day, it is still a case of buyer beware.

Sales consultant Marcus Koh, 46, said, “Sure, we may trust top hotels or the busier cafes, but can we always be certain? And do the smaller cafes that offer such wide varieties of cakes really take pains to track what is fresh and what is not? I can only hope so.”

By Rebecca Lynne Tan

(The Straits Times)