Saturday, June 21, 2008

Singapore's global quest for wholesome food

Mooncakes, curry and...
Dr Chua Sin Bin is gatekeeper of the vast supply of food entering Singapore. He and his team help ensure food is safe and affordable.

Lee Siew Hua, Straits Times 20 Jun 08;

SALTED eggs nearly disappeared from mooncakes in Singapore last year.

A red alert on curry in Britain started it all. The authorities there found in 2005 that curry had been tinted - tainted - a rich orangey-red with Sudan Red, a dirt-cheap industrial dye used in lacquer and shoe polish.

When Singapore's food sleuths at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) learnt of this, they wondered what could go awry in this part of the world.

AVA chief executive Chua Sin Bin, 61, tells Insight: 'We know the practice of feeding carotene to chicken to get the orangey-red colour in yolks.'

This is a natural food dye from carrot and red capsicum.

On a hunch, they tested shipments of salted eggs and century eggs. Sure enough, some farmers had substituted safe carotene for cancer-causing Sudan Red in chicken and duck feed to achieve vivid golden yolks.

'Some smart guys had tried to take a short cut,' says Dr Chua.

So 2.2 million eggs were suspended from sale, mostly from China. Others came from Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Result: Singapore celebrated the Mid-autumn Festival last September a little differently when yolks nearly disappeared from mooncakes.

The eggs have since made a comeback, with health certificates from exporters now made mandatory.

'It's very simple. They stop, that's the end of it.'

From farm to fork

DR CHUA'S egg story illustrates how the agency operates as guardian of the national pantry. The watchdog role is vital in a land that imports 90 per cent of its food.

Earlier this month, AVA ordered a ban on the import of three tomato varieties from the United States after a salmonella outbreak there.

'Our biggest challenge,' Dr Chua says, 'is how to keep food safe in the face of an ever-increasing list of known and emerging food-borne hazards.'

Reaction time is crunched in a greatly connected world. 'What happens tens of thousands of kilometres away can appear on our shores in the blink of an eye,' he notes, making a 'keen sense of anticipation' a requirement at all times.

The AVA has to make rapid decisions to remove hazards from the food chain, relying on its assessments of the latest information, and its good institutional knowledge.

Nothing escapes the eyes of the agency, declares Dr Chua, who started his career as a veterinary officer in 1971. The AVA was then the Primary Production Department.

He rose through the ranks before becoming deputy chief executive in 2000 and CEO five years later.

The AVA scrutinises the entire food production chain or, in Dr Chua's words, 'from the farm to the fork'.

For instance, AVA officers visit farms to inspect facilities before deciding whether they should be accredited as approved suppliers.

They try to discern if someone farms intelligently - or is susceptible to chemical salesmen who push unsafe pesticides.

'One glance and we've a very good sense of whether a plant is practising hygienic methods or it is only putting on a show for us on that day,' he says.

AVA has approved 26 countries to export meat here. Countries are 'risk-profiled' based on their regulatory systems and other such factors.

Australia and New Zealand are first-rate in safety, says Dr Chua.

Last year, the AVA inspected a total of 89,231 consignments from across the world. Only 527 were rejected.

The importer, he believes, shares the onus of bringing in safe food. 'We must make it very clear to them that this is our standard,' he says.

China food scares

EXPORTS from China have been in the spotlight. Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, the US and European nations have taken action over a range of food items, including Maling brand canned luncheon meat containing a banned antibiotic, White Rabbit sweets and frozen dumplings.

Dr Chua says: 'Our reputation in China is that Singapore is a very stringent country.

'We have a very robust inspection system, and China's exporting establishments know they can't get past that if they don't do a good job. They know what we want. Over the years, they've realised we mean business.'

With multitudes of manufacturers and businessmen clamouring to export and earn foreign exchange, China's regulatory and quality-control machinery have had trouble keeping pace with the huge export drive.

In the old days, there was a single state exporter, Cofco, or the Cereals, Oil and Foodstuff Corporation.

'It had a lot of control over the establishments that produced food. It chose the best for export,' he says.

Still, there are comforting aspects to China's export mania: the latter has led China to be very serious about agricultural development.

Very big farms now tap technology and hire scientists, mostly PhDs in agriculture, says Dr Chua.

In reality, China is not a major supplier to Singapore, especially for meat and fish.

It plays a bigger role in vegetables, and accounts for about 30 per cent of Singapore's imports of these.

Even as the AVA confronts global food scares, it has a plateful of other trends to watch.

For instance, more Singaporeans are turning to organic food, and they don't want chemical fertilisers. The question is, where do farmers find organic fertilisers?

He recounts an incident in Canada in the 1980s, when many expectant mothers lost their foetuses after eating coleslaw tainted with bacteria.

This was traced to cabbage grown on organic farms fertilised with manure from bacteria-bearing sheep.

For the AVA, this means it has to be fully cognisant of agricultural practices in many countries.

Learning from Prima Deli

AT HOME, the Prima Deli episode shows how painful any slip-up can be.

Last year, more than 100 people suffered food poisoning after eating the bakery's cakes.

Prima Deli is a good plant, and used to be highly rated as a Category A outfit, he says, citing its internal controls and food technologists.

'But a factory can slip up, for instance, if they bring in new workers,' he says. 'Workers may not be fully trained. Some become complacent.'

Two lessons the AVA has conveyed to the industry are that workers cannot slacken, and products must be tested every day.

'It must be drummed into the worker that everyone counts, and every step he takes counts,' he says.

More food ahead

AS MUCH as food should be safe, there must be enough of it.

There is gathering global concern that the world must increase its food production.

This message was urgently conveyed to world leaders on June 2, during a Rome summit on the food crisis led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The AVA has several strategies to keep the food supply resilient. It continually scours the globe for new and diverse food sources.

Its position on genetically modified (GM) food is one illuminating aspect, for it opens another door to supplies.

'Our view is that genetically modified products have gone through very thorough evaluation before they are safe enough for the marketplace,' he says.

After all, 'human beings have been cross-breeding plants, animals and fish for generations', he argues.

'GM is just a method of accelerating production. It is not creating anything so vastly different. It accelerates the process by pinpointing which gene to keep.'

Singapore consumes GM soya beans and corn.

On another front, the AVA is 're-assessing' how much food Singapore can produce locally.

With competing demands for land, it is really not easy to ramp up production. The ideal is to create niches powered by technology, such as the automation of goat-milk farms.

'As long as our private sector can find the land and find it economical to farm, we will give them all the support,' he promises.

After all, Singaporeans prefer locally produced food, he says. 'They are willing to pay more, and our production technology is good.'

Today, the nation grows 10 per cent of its vegetables. He thinks this can increase.

The next big idea is for companies to invest in overseas farms.

Meanwhile, what does the man who wields such influence over the national platter eat when he's at home?

'My wife uses very simple cooking methods like blanching. Occasionally, she stir-fries. So you can see the kitchen is very clean, no oil.'

Every evening, half their dinner is composed of fruits.

But he does not obsessively cut out fat. Go for 'good fat', he says, such as olive oil.

And when the couple eat at restaurants, they ask the cooks to skip the MSG, use less salt - 'and be gentle in their cooking'.

That sounds very much like the man and his mission - a gentle leader who's forceful with all that is unwholesome.

How to ensure supply: Invest in farms overseas?
Lee Siew Hua, Straits Times 20 Jun 08;

WILL this be the next big idea in Singapore's pursuit of abundant food: Investing in farms overseas to better control the stability and safety of Singapore's food supply?

Dr Chua Sin Bin, chief executive of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), is an ardent advocate of this move, and says it flows with the Government's perpetual search for 'new sources' of food supply.

The Government, he says, will help pave the way for private-sector companies interested in investing in farms - and farm zones - overseas, although the investments must ultimately be driven by the private sector itself.

Farm zones integrate logistics, technology, farmer coaching, distribution and other vital expertise. This way, farmers can cater better to Singaporean food preferences.

The right expertise will also keep food fresh as it makes its way from possibly remote regional farms to the discerning diner in Singapore.

The AVA, says Dr Chua, will manage cross-border and quarantine issues, iron out technical quirks, and work with industry to make this a reality.

It will also work with regional authorities on land leases, help build their quality- assurance schemes, and open access to Singapore markets.

'We will engender an atmosphere of confidence,' declares Dr Chua.

Opportunities lie especially in fish, vegetable and fruit farms in the region.

Mr Roger Yeo, chief executive of Singapore Food Industries, a diversified food business whose businesses include distribution, processing and catering, is open to the idea.

'We have always stated our interest and intent to look upstream,' he says.

The company brings in 15 to 20 per cent of Singapore's imported meat, so that is a natural platform for farm ventures.

But not all are convinced. NTUC FairPrice is clear that it 'does not plan to move in the upstream direction'.

Its managing director Seah Kian Peng says: 'We will focus on our strength as Singapore's largest supermarket retailer.'

Instead of taking financial stakes in farms in the region, FairPrice works on a system 'akin to contract farming' with certain producers in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he says. It offers certainty to these producers with guaranteed orders.

The Dairy Farm group, which owns the Cold Storage and Giant supermarket chains, similarly plans to focus on retailing.

One possible obstacle that farm investors could face is the same nationalist sentiment that bedevilled Singapore companies' investments in telecommunications in Indonesia.

The AVA's Dr Chua is mindful of the difficulties even as he urges investors to head into the region. 'Agriculture investment is for the long term - it takes a long time for payback.'

He points out, however, that investors will have technology and a successful Indonesian model on their side.

Already, there are farms in the land-rich Riau province in Indonesia which grow vegetables that sell in Singapore.

Owned by Indonesians, these farms have benefited from technology transfer from the AVA since 2001.

Some measures include netting to keep vegetables resistant to pests and weather while they are growing, and cool-packing houses to keep vegetables fresh after they are harvested.

There are also chiller-fitted boats for the 20-hour journey to Singapore, and refrigerated trucks waiting in Singapore to rush the greens to supermarkets.

'The vegetables arrive in Singapore in great condition,' Dr Chua says. 'They are flying off the shelves in FairPrice.'

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