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.