Between 27 and 30 January, five individuals have been hospitalised after consuming coffee from the same instant durian coffee sachets. Several days later, another two individuals were hospitalised in Penang after consuming the same instant beverage,

The five initial individuals hospitalised (three men, two women) were aged between 18 and 62 years old. Meanwhile, two truck drivers who were later hospitalised, claimed that they were given the instant coffee sachets by their colleague, who had found the sachets in a dustbin.

The seven affected individuals had consumed coffee from the same brand and developed unpleasant symptoms shortly after consuming. These symptoms included weakness, fatigue, dizziness and vomiting which eventually necessitated hospitalisation. Moreover, these symptoms were found to be similar among all those who have been affected – i.e. pointing towards a possible psychoactive substance within the instant coffee mixture.

Following the peculiar nature of the incident, tampering of the coffee mixture was suspected and a subsequent investigation was initiated by the Ministry of Health (MOH) at the behest of Health Minister, Dr S. Subramaniam. “We want the police to investigate how this substance could have gone into the premix coffee. There seems to be a pattern where those who turn ill received the coffee from strangers,” highlighted Dr Subramaniam, as he urged the authorities to expedite the investigation.

While the investigation was underway, the instant coffee had to be temporarily pulled off the shelves, as reflected through Singapore’s downright ban of its sale.

Ensuing investigation

Initial investigation by the police found that the coffee sachets consumed showed signs of tampering. More specifically, the sachets had been opened and resealed with an additional of 10g of green substance. The police have also collected statements from the affected individuals to help paint a better picture of the incident, while narrowing down any possible suspects. Thus far, no suspects have been idtentified with the police still actively investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, hospital officials have collected urine and blood samples from the affected individuals to ascertain the exact chemical used to taint the coffee.

The image released by the affected coffee brand pointing out the sabotaged (left) and normal (right) coffee.

The image released by the affected coffee brand pointing out the sabotaged (left) and normal (right) coffee.

Eager to clear their name, the company responsible for manufacturing the instant coffee had lodged a police report alleging sabotage of their product. At the same time, a photo of the allegedly tampered coffee packs were also posted on the company’s social network pages.

Working together with the Food Safety and Quality Division, the ministry has conducted tests on random samples of the instant coffee and the exact coffee mixture directly from the factory. From these tests, the ministry found no evidence of any foreign or harmful chemicals added to the coffee mixture further reinforcing the belief that the original consumed batch of instant coffee had been tampered by a third party with malicious intent.

Understanding the outcomes of the investigation, Dr Subramaniam noted that the investigation would then no longer fall under MOH’s jurisdiction. “We leave it to the police to conduct a full investigation into this matter, it is now beyond the ministry’s jurisdiction. However, monitoring will continue to be done from time to time,” he elaborated.

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Back to business

With the investigation results revealing original instant coffee is safe for consumption, Dr Subramaniam stands by his initial decision to not ban the sales of the instant coffee. Defending his decision, he said “had the five people displayed the symptoms after buying it off the racks, we would have removed it by now. And our examinations of the manufacturer’s factory revealed nothing untoward.”

Emphasising that the criminal nature of this incident, Dr Subramaniam also mentioned that “it’s either given by individuals, picked up in garbage cans, so there’s something very fishy about this entire thing. (And) that’s why we’ve asked the police to investigate this thing thoroughly, whether there’s an element of criminality in this whole thing.”

The police are treating the incident as a criminal investigation under Section 272 of the Penal Code, which covers the tampering of food or drink products that are intended for sale. If found guilty, the offender is punishable with a RM2,000 fine or a six-month prison sentence, or both. MIMS