Watching from farm to fork: Keeping food in Singapore safe in the global era

As Singapore's food supply chain diversifies, how is food safety and security ensured in Singapore?
VICTOR LOH Today Online 13 May 17;

SINGAPORE — When news of a major tainted meat scandal in Brazil emerged in March, alarm bells went off from South Africa to China and Singapore in a sign of how globalised the food supply chain has become.

The South American country's powerhouse meatpacking industry exports to more than 150 countries. For Singapore, Brazil is considered a major source of supply of beef, chicken and pork despite the huge geographic distance apart.

Though the scandal involved just 21 of 4,837 meat-processing facilities in Brazil, Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) took no chances and brought in a higher-than-usual amount of meat samples from Brazil to its laboratories for analysis.

"We analysed all (the extra meat samples) in two to three days, on top of the regular meats we examine on a regular basis," recalled Ms Elaine Teo, a senior scientist at AVA's drug residue laboratory.

While AVA quickly established that Singapore was not affected by the Brazilian scandal involving rotten meat being sold with faked certificates, the incident underscored the complexities of managing food safety in the face of a globalised supply chain.

Land-scarce Singapore has to import most of its food. Over 90 per cent of its food over the past two years, for instance, had to be imported from some 170 countries worldwide.

AVA recently gave TODAY an inside look at its layered approach to ensuring food safety, which involves multiple risk assessments, inspections, laboratory tests, and monitoring of the numerous food types and sources of supply that enter Singapore.

GATEKEEPING

Countries that wish to export livestock, meat, and eggs to Singapore must first be accredited by the AVA.

"We look at the capabilities of the exporting country. Are they able to ensure food safety, the animals' health, and the meat products they export to Singapore?" said Mr Herman Teo, a senior executive manager at AVA's accreditation division.

He added: "We also look at their labs' diagnostic capabilities, and how they regulate farms, slaughterhouses and food factories on the ground."

AVA officials travel overseas widely and regularly to inspect their counterparts' disease surveillance and pesticides monitoring systems. Foreign commercial food factories and farms are also vetted.

An AVA team was coincidentally in Brazil to inspect one of its export establishments when the meat scandal in March broke out.

Currently, over 1,000 establishments from 36 countries have been accredited to export various meat and egg products to Singapore.

"We have to ensure that their inspectors on the ground - both their veterinarians and food inspectors - are well-trained and know the symptoms of diseases. They need to have the confidence and ability to flag out deficiencies in their food factories and farms," said Mr Teo.

The AVA also works closely with the local authorities in exporting countries to ensure food safety at the source. This has led to the set up of several disease-free animal farming zones in Malaysia and China.

To keep periodic concerns like bird flu at bay, the AVA has been assisting their Indonesian counterparts in controlling and managing bird flu outbreaks in Batam and Bintan since 2006.

STRINGENT CHECKS

Once imported into Singapore, live animals and food items are subjected to strict inspection and surveillance.

For example, three AVA inspectors, including a supervisor, are stationed at the only pig abattoir in Singapore from Saturday to Thursday to conduct visual checks on over 6,000 pigs shipped from Bulan Island, off Batam. There are no deliveries on Fridays.

As the pigs get shepherded from the barge into the abattoir, located at Buroh Lane near Jurong Port Road, the inspectors keep an eye out for anomalies on the animals' gait, body condition, and skin colour.

One inspector will then inspect the meat, while the other checks the organs.

Pigs that pass the AVA inspection are then branded with a pink mark by a staff from the commercial abattoir. Pigs that fail the inspection, which number two to three daily, are further examined by an AVA supervisor who looks out for signs like abscesses in the liver.

"If (the abscess) is localised, we just remove it. However, if the anomaly is generalised, the whole pig is condemned and we make a report," said Mr Placido Ronald Palapal, a senior executive manager at AVA's slaughterhouses surveillance section.

The condemned sample, along with other random samples, are then brought to AVA's laboratories, where they are subjected to a battery of tests for drug residues or parasites.


(AVA inspectors conducting visual checks on imported live poultry arriving at Tuas checkpoint. Photo: AVA)
Similar checks are also conducted for live poultry coming through the Tuas Checkpoint, and at 14 local chicken and duck slaughterhouses.
Over the past two years, some 14,000 samples from the local poultry slaughterhouses had been sent to AVA's laboratories to test for bird flu, salmonella, and other diseases.
Besides live animals like pigs and poultry, AVA also inspects frozen and chilled meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and high-risk food like infant milk formula.
"It is impractical to inspect and test all food options available in our market. Our inspection and surveillance programme is based on scientific risk assessment," said Dr Paul Chiew, AVA's programme chief (food safety) and group director of laboratories group.

In 2016, AVA conducted over 8,200 inspections and sampling of local farms, while about 6,900 inspections were done on food factories in the same year.

AVA will cull the infected animals in the event of a disease outbreak in the local farms, such as in 2015 when a poultry farm was affected by a salmonella virus outbreak.

Local poultry farms are bird-proofed to prevent contact between wild birds (that may carry viruses) and the domesticated birds.

Professor Zhou Weibiao, director of the National University of Singapore's food science and technology programme, said Singapore has one of the highest food safety and security standards in the world.

"In many cases, Singapore is better than many developed countries. Some regulations (in Singapore) are even stricter than the US or Europe," said Professor Zhou. "This is because Singapore's regulatory system is a collection of the best practices around the world."

SCENARIO PLANNING

While strict, Singapore's food safety and regulatory systems are not impregnable. The country's strategic location and status as a transit hub also make it vulnerable to contagions, said Prof Zhou.

"For example, food poisoning can spread. You can't stop international travel," he added.

To that end, AVA has conducted simulation exercises to test out responses to various scenarios, such as a short-term food supply disruption.

An inter-agency crisis management structure called One Health, involving AVA, the National Environment Agency (NEA), and Ministry of Health (MOH), is also in place to respond to foodborne disease outbreaks.

One Health was activated in response to the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria outbreak in 2015 that affected raw-fish dishes, and a 2016 mass food poisoning case that affected over 100 people who consumed unclean food from a caterer.
"As food contamination can occur at any point in the food chain, it is essential for all of us to play our part in ensuring that food in Singapore is safe," Dr Chiew said. "Food safety is a shared responsibility between the government, industry, and public."


Keeping imported meat in Singapore safe for consumption
Vanessa Lim Channel NewsAsia 14 May 17;

SINGAPORE: The Brazilian meat scandal that erupted in March highlighted the importance of ensuring safety of imported food in various countries including Singapore.

With the city-state importing large amounts of meat every year, how do authorities ensure that the food are safe for consumption?

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), the answer lies in stringent checks that are not just carried out in Singapore but also in the country where the food source comes from.

IMPORTED LIVE PIGS AND PORK

Close to 6,500 live pigs are imported to Singapore from Pulau Bulan, Indonesia every week. AVA starts doing checks even before the pigs leave Indonesia. Upon arrival, they are immediately ushered into a shower area, where they are cleaned and disinfected.

AVA inspectors will then conduct visual checks for signs of ill-health. This can be determined by the colour of their skin, their body condition or simply the way they walk.

"Accreditation is the first step of our food safety system,” said Mr Herman Teo, senior executive manager of Accreditation Division, AVA. “What we call 'source accreditation' is us working with the export country to look at their food regulation and animal health regulation systems," he said.

"So we look at what their legislation is like, their inspection and food safety capabilities, to ensure that what they export to us is safe for human consumption and free from animal disease," added Mr Teo.

To date, 36 countries with over 1,000 establishments have been accredited to export various meat and egg products to Singapore. In the event of a compromise in food safety or animal health standards in the approved establishment or country, AVA will assess and evaluate the situation before taking action. When necessary, the authority will order a suspension on imports.

Once the livestock or meat products arrive in Singapore, random samples are collected and taken to AVA's Veterinary Public Health Laboratory (VPHL) to test for impurities that may not be so easily detected by the naked eye, such as excessive drug residue as well and parasites.

Food products that fail inspections will not be allowed for sale and the party responsible for this will be taken to task. First time offenders face a fine of up to S$5,000 and subsequent offenders could be fined up to S$10,000, jailed for three months or both.

USING TECHNOLOGY FOR FURTHER TESTS

AVA said nearly 380,000 tonnes of meat were imported to Singapore in 2016. This included processed meat and poultry as well as live animals such as pigs, chickens and ducks. Out of 72,000 consignments of imported meat and meat products inspected in 2016, only 90 consignments were rejected.

While the quantity may seem small, AVA said that it cannot risk allowing tainted meat to enter the market.

“Meat and animal products have a chance of harbouring diseases that could be transmitted to humans, so we look at it from a food safety and animal health perspective,” said Mr Teo.

AVA’s checks notwithstanding, industry partners are still encouraged to adopt in-house measures to provide further assurance to consumers. According to meat supplier Seo Eng Joo Frozen Food, technology is key to this.

“With Radio-frequency identification (RFID), we are able to data mine the products at each stage of the storage area," said Mr Charlie Seo, Business Development Director of Seo Eng Joo Frozen Food.

"(This is) so we're able to track how long does it take for products to move from one area to another. With time-based alarms, we're able to control whether there's temperature abuse or time-delay abuse,"

Meanwhile, experts from NTU's Food Technology Centre (Naftec) are working on a new innovation that will be able to tell if a meat is safe to consume in real time.

Professor William Chen, Director of the Food Science Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said: "What is coming up, which has already been developed in the USA, for example, is what we call electronic nose.

"What this device does is to actually detect the decomposed component from the food produce, for example meat, and then directly inform the consumers,” Prof Chen said.

Naftec was opened in November 2016, with an aim to look into ways to enhance food safety and security.

Moving forward, Naftec will also be working with industry partners to develop better packaging to prolong the shelf-life of food produce.

The centre is currently developing a disposable sensor that can be placed within food packaging to detect spoilage.

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