A peek at the illicit trade in smuggled vegetables in Singapore
How are illegally imported vegetables getting in, and why are some suppliers risking prosecution? The programme Talking Point investigates.
SINGAPORE: Some vegetable suppliers from Malaysia are resorting to smuggling their vegetables into Singapore to avoid being fined and their produce being confiscated if they do not meet food safety standards.
These are suppliers that use a lot of pesticides on their vegetables to protect them from pests and to guarantee that they look fresh, according to Malaysian vegetable wholesaler Calvin Chan.
“They were forced to do it … They want to make a living,” he said. “If the vegetables don’t look fresh, the Singaporean boss won’t pay (them) well because the quality isn’t great … The price depends on the quality.”
The director at Mr Vege Trading called it an “ironic problem”, as some Singaporeans insist that their vegetables should “look nice”.
“If they demand nice-looking vegetables, of high quality and visually pleasing, then there must be a lot of pesticides used to achieve all that,” said Chan, who has been in the vegetable export business for over a decade.
In the past five years, the authorities here found more than 200 cases of illegally imported fruits and vegetables — that is, without proper clearance — during food safety checks.
The programme Talking Point finds out more about this illicit trade in smuggled vegetables and how some suppliers have escaped detection. (Watch the episode here.)
BYPASSING THE CHECKS
Singapore imports around 1,500 tonnes of fresh vegetables daily from countries like China, Australia and Malaysia.
The main point of import is the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, where lorries coming into Singapore carrying vegetables must make a pit stop before the produce can be sold to local supermarkets, restaurants or hawker stalls.
This is where the Singapore Food Agency, the national authority for food safety, does most of its routine checks — or at importers’ premises — to ensure that the vegetables are safe to eat.
The agency said illegally imported food products are of unknown sources, pose a food safety risk and will not be allowed for sale.
But some vegetables are sneaked across the border by bypassing the checks at Pasir Panjang, according to Hamid (not his real name), a Malaysian driver who used to smuggle vegetables into Singapore “five to 10 years ago”.
He said customers here would request him to pick up the vegetables from wholesale markets in Johor and deliver the goods straight to their restaurants or stalls.
The sellers save money by not risking vegetables being rejected if they fail pesticide checks and through the avoidance of fines, so these vegetables can be sold more cheaply.
But this affects the business of local suppliers such as Lim Ah Keng from TNT Vegetables Importers and Exporters, who brings in vegetables from Malaysia to sell to restaurants and markets.
If some of his vegetable samples fail the inspection, he would have to destroy that batch and bear the cost of those vegetables. His company could also be fined if its vegetables fail the SFA inspections more than once.
Repeat offenders are temporarily suspended from importing vegetables. “After that, we’d have to wait three months until … we can resume the delivery of these vegetables,” said Lim. “This might be one of the reasons many people resort to smuggling.”
Offenders may even be imprisoned for up to three years.
NOT JUST ROUTINE CHECKS
Drivers like Hamid may have got away with it, but the SFA has since stepped up inspections by sending its officers to inspect vegetables at the border. Occasionally, it conducts surprise checks in addition to the routine ones.
Its officers check the vegetables’ packaging, quantity and source. They look out for signs of spoilage and whether importers are under-declaring the amount of produce brought in or are bringing in vegetables not declared in the permit.
“Our risk-based surveillance programme will flag up vegetables that are of a higher risk, (which means to say) there’s a tendency (towards) pesticide use,” said Patrick Bay, the deputy director of compliance management at the SFA Southwest Regional Office.
“And we’d flag up importers that already have poor track records.”
For these vegetables that have a history of high levels of pesticide, a sample is taken to a laboratory to test for the residue level.
The SFA receives, on average, about 20 to 30 samples of vegetables for testing every day, said Shen Ping, the head of organic chemistry at its Food Safety Monitoring and Forensics Department.
If a sample is found to be safe, the consignment is released for sale. If not, the whole batch of vegetables are rejected, and feedback is given to the farm that grew them.
Out of 7,073 vegetable consignments inspected last year, about 7 per cent, or 497 consignments, were rejected because the pesticide residues exceeded Singapore’s limits.
WATCH: How safe are our vegetables? (22.20)
What happens, however, if people eat vegetables like those smuggled in — with a lot of pesticide?
Studies have shown that the ingestion of high levels of pesticide can be potentially toxic to humans, with long-term exposure linked to asthma, allergies and cancer.
So the SFA has dictated a maximum residue limit — tied to international regulatory and safety standards, which farmers must meet — to protect consumers.
However, these limits on the amount of pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food product are not food safety limits.
They are set with a large safety margin, and food found to exceed the limits are not necessarily unsafe for consumption, stated the SFA. "If you're exposed to this every meal, then (it) may have some long-term consequences,” said Shen.
The agency has recommended guidelines for preparing vegetables: Give them a 30-second rinse, followed by a 15-minute soak and then one final rinse to remove pesticide residue.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.