SINGAPORE: Be it laksa, mee soto, popiah or prawn mee, they all share a common ingredient we don’t often think about until it’s missing - the humble towgay or beansprout.
Few people realise that in Singapore, about 40,000kg of beansprouts are consumed daily; that’s well over 14,000 tonnes a year.
But in recent years, the price of beansprouts has spiked dramatically; beansprouts at wet markets these days cost at least S$1.50 per kg as compared to about S$0.90 per kg about four years ago.
That works out to about a 70 per cent increase, way more than inflation over those years.
“In the past ten years, costs have increased,” explained Thomas Tan, owner of Chiam Joo Seng Towgay in Lim Chu Kang, one of the biggest suppliers of this crop.
“This is a very labour-intensive industry, the foreign workers’ levy has increased a lot more, diesel prices have increased by double, and bean prices increased by double too.”
But as the programme For Food’s Sake! discovers, is it really production costs that have gone up, driving the price of beansprouts or is the price spike due to a demand and supply issue?
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SUPERMARKET TOWGAY DOUBLE THE PRICE
Beansprouts are probably one of the cheapest vegetables out there and for cooking at home, most people usually don’t need more than a handful.
This perhaps explains why most people have not noticed a sharp spike in beansprout prices in the last couple of years.
But the price hike has not escaped the notice of vegetable sellers who deal with beansprouts in bulk.
Around 70 per cent of the beansprouts we eat is grown right here in Singapore.
Tan grew up in a beansprout farming family - his father and uncle were one of the earliest beansprout farmers in Singapore.
He said that most farmers in Singapore get their mung beans from Myanmar, and in 2015 there was a spike in the price of mung beans due to a bad harvest in India, which resulted in the latter buying more beans from Myanmar.
“The price went up as much as four times,” said Tan.
“At that point I stopped selling to the wet market and I understand that the rest of the farmers (in Singapore) stopped absorbing the cost and increased the wet market price.”
The price hike in mung beans resulted in a price increase for beansprouts, an increase which was passed to consumers.
In wet markets, beansprouts which used to cost S$0.90 per kg a few years ago now costs S$1.50 per kg.
But the same product in supermarkets has gone up even more - beansprouts which used to cost S$1 per kg now costs S$3.50 per kg on average.
That makes supermarket sprouts at least twice as expensive compared to wet market ones.
So, what makes beansprouts in supermarkets so much more expensive than their wet market counterparts?
Tan said he stopped selling to wet markets because of the low prices, and he now supplies mainly to supermarkets and restaurants.
A decade ago, beansprouts would be de-husked at the farms the day before and then displayed loose in supermarkets, like they are at wet markets.
But at supermarkets, customers have unrestrained access to the sprouts, and all that manhandling meant unsold sprouts had to be tossed at the end of the day.
Tan saw a market opportunity and offered supermarkets pre-packaged beansprouts with cold chain management, a system of storing and transporting perishable products such as vegetables at recommended temperatures from the point of harvest to the final consumer.
What’s more, Tan also offered to deliver the beansprouts throughout the day, not just in the morning.
How this produce is delivered to supermarkets had a huge bearing on its price.
For Tan, the additional S$1 million investment for cold chain management such as packing machines, cold trucks and other equipment meant he had to raise the price of beansprouts to about S$2.20 per kg.
“We were the first ones to sell in the supermarkets the pre-packed form, to maintain the freshness (of the beansprouts). Over a period of time, customers got more used to it now," said Tan, admitting that they were the ones who single-handedly raised the prices of beansprouts in supermarkets.
Since Tan started supplying pre-packed beansprouts to supermarkets, other companies have followed suit.
And they all follow Singapore Food Agency’s recommendations for cold chain management where vegetables are kept between 2°C to 6°C from farm to retail outlets, to bring about fresher and higher quality vegetables.
Aside from freshness and convenience, there is another factor that is pushing up the average price of supermarket sprouts, the emergence of premium beansprouts.
The most expensive are the silver sprouts, which have been plucked on both ends, at an eye-watering price of $1.25/145g or S$8.60 per kg.
That is almost six times more than the wet market variety.
Plucking beansprouts is tedious but with pre-plucked and prepacked silver sprouts, all that is done for the consumers.
“Silver sprouts are very popular. For every three regular packet of beansprouts, I sell one packet of silver sprouts,” said Tan.
“But the problem is getting enough supply. Producing silver sprouts cannot be mechanised. Plucking sprouts is still a very labour intensive product.”
He shared that how he used to hire 40 women residing in two HDB blocks of flats to pluck the beansprouts during the 2008 global financial crisis but after that period, “no one in Singapore wanted to do it at that pay anymore”.
These days, he imports his silver sprouts from Malaysia.
Angie Ng, owner of Mr Tauge, one of the main Malaysian suppliers of silver sprouts to Singapore, said that even they have trouble hiring full-time help to pluck the beansprouts.
She said that eventually they will not be able to find people willing to pluck beansprouts for a living, and silver sprouts could soon be a thing of the past.
“We have tried hiring, but the results weren’t good,” she said. “You have to spend seven to eight hours here, a lot of people aren’t willing,” she said.
Watch the episode here.