Archived news articles - 2008

The Business Times, 8 March 2008

Guardian of Singapore's food supply

As head of the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, Chua Sin Bin has the monumental task of overseeing the Republic's sources of food, upholding food safety standards and safeguarding animal and plant health. CHEN HUIFEN reports

CEOs tend to be an impatient lot. Once they sit down to meet the press, they can't wait for the interview to start and be done with it, so that they can get on with the next engagement.

"To us there's nothing more important than making sure that our public is protected."
- Dr Chua on the shutdown order on Prima Deli last year, after more than 100 people came down with food poisoning

But not so Chua Sin Bin, 60, CEO of the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, the key agency responsible for making sure that Singaporeans can enjoy their favourite foods with peace of mind and that the well-being of Singapore's plants and animals is being managed properly.

Before getting down to the formal part of our interview, Dr Chua spends a good half an hour sharing snippets of his personal life.

As his corporate communications assistant director prepares a cup of tea for the man, he speaks of his ambivalent attitude to the other hot drink associated with hospitality. 'I like the smell of coffee,' said Dr Chua. 'I always offer to make my wife coffee because I like the aroma, but I don't quite like the taste of it.'

Very soon, one learns that the man is a tea connoisseur and the former chairman of the Technical Committee for Tea, which was charged with setting the Singapore standard for teas, with a view to establish a tea auction centre here. 'But the auction centre never really took off,' he said with a wry laugh. 'So we wasted all our efforts.'

He knows his teas by type and origin, as well as the processes that go into their making. His favourite is Zhejiang's unfermented Longjing tea.

'It's the nicest of all,' said Dr Chua, who is also chief veterinary officer. 'Because it is green tea and hasn't gone to oven to dry. It's dried in the wok, by hand. So you can see the gentle treatment which the tea leaves have been given. The heat is not hot enough to burn your hand, so it is a very tedious process. As for Japanese tea, it tends to have a little bit of a burnt taste. So I always go for Longjing.'

Perhaps his youthful complexion has something to do with his tea drinking habit. Or his eating preferences. He proclaims that he is not adventurous when it comes to food, and will avoid anything with MSG or raw ingredients such as sashimi. 'My wife hardly fries,' he added. 'Most of the foods we eat at home, I think, are blanched.'

Spotlight on AVA
It is hard to pinpoint whether such habits are driven by health reasons or simply an extension of his professional undertaking. After all, food safety is part of his responsibility. And with food scares, import bans and rising food prices headlining the news recently, the spotlight has been cast on AVA to come up with measures and solutions.

In response to the rising costs of food, the agency has been diversifying its food supply sources, such as chickens from Brazil, vegetables from Vietnam and Indonesia, frozen ducks from Taiwan and seafood from Namibia. With the exception of eggs, all the key food items in Singapore have less than 50 per cent of their supply coming from a single country. Even so, Dr Chua concedes that food prices will continue their rising trend, owing to the supply crunch and growing demand from emerging economies in the region.

'When oil prices go up, food prices will go up because it's a knock-on effect,' he explained. 'Agricultural inputs, fertilisers, pesticides - a lot of these are derived from fuel. And you need energy to produce them. The logistics, the cost of transportation also increases, so that will contribute (to rising prices).'

Adding to the pressure is the worldwide hunt for alternative, green energy using food crops such as corn oil and palm oil. 'Perhaps it is also market failure in a way, because when farmers see that corn, palm oil are getting good prices, of course they want to grow corn and palm oil.' As a result, less of the earth's finite arable land is allocated for food crops.

For a longer term solution, science would have to come into play - either by achieving a better yield for crop production, or through a more efficient use of non-food crops such as jatropha for biofuel. Dr Chua is hopeful that the 'world will wake up' one day to its folly of diverting wholesome food crops towards fuel production.

Until then, more and more people could look toward genetically modified (GM) foods as a solution. Genetic modification involves taking DNA from one organism, modifying it and injecting it into a target plant in order to improve productivity or enrich it with a certain quality. GM corn products and soya beans are already available in Singapore.

'We have tested them, done the risk assessment, and the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee has also evaluated,' said Dr Chua. 'And we both agree that these products are safe and therefore they are in the marketplace.'

While food prices in Singapore is something which the AVA can help manage but not control, the authority can however claim credit for the standard of food safety here. Based on 2006 data, the number of food poisoning cases in Singapore is 35.93 per 100,000 population, lower than New Zealand's record of more than 400 cases per 100,000 and way better than the record of more than 2,000 cases in the US. Even taking into account the Prima Deli incident, last year's figure came to 36.67 per 100,000, within AVA's target of under 60 a year.

The consistent performance is achieved through stringent controls at source. For example, the AVA accredits sources, carries out checks and tests on food products at the point of import before making them available to consumers. In managing food poisoning outbreaks, the agency is also noted for its speedy and decisive response, as seen in the shutdown order on Prima Deli last year, after more than 100 people were infected with the salmonella enteritidis bacterium after eating the bakery's cakes.

'People may think we are hard on the industry, but the public is more important,' said Dr Chua. 'To us there's nothing more important than making sure that our public is protected.'

Even in the area of disease outbreak management, Dr Chua ensures that the same fastidious approach is applied. Multiple layers of defence are in place to prevent a bird flu outbreak, including netted cages to cut off contact with local poultry by wild birds. Farms are also discouraged from sharing equipment and allowing casual visitors to their premises. Vaccinations are carried out at the zoos and the bird park and surveillance at slaughterhouses and immigration check points has been stepped up.

'On top of that, we have already mapped out our contingency plan to get rid of bird flu in the event that it actually comes in,' he said. 'Various scenarios have been thought out.'

The AVA also holds regular training exercises and culling operations. 'I don't think we can totally eradicate the disease because of the wildlife reservoir. So what every country needs to do is make sure that they have a good system in which they can move in straight away and stop it from spreading.'

The system should be based on comprehensive risk assessment.

'Because we have finite amount of resources, we cannot squander that resource away by going everywhere trying to look for problems. No, we do our risk profiling. Every country, we risk-profile them. Also the sources, we risk-profile.'

As human beings continue to encroach further into the natural habitats of animals, exotic diseases such as bird flu and mad cow disease are unlikely to go away. The good thing that came out of the trend is that relevant agencies in each country have become more vigilant and more collaborative.

While the AVA can do all the forward planning and carry out preventive medicine initiatives, Dr Chua stresses that food safety and disease control should not be the sole responsibility of a single agency. The industry and the public must also play their role in paying attention to their consumption and surroundings, keeping in mind that there are groups of vulnerable people amongst us.

'There's a group of vulnerable population, people who are immunology-compromised, such as transplant patients, people who have diabetes, who have gone through chemotherapy,' he said. 'They are most susceptible to outbreak of diseases and food poisoning.'

Proactive role
Dr Chua himself takes a proactive role, too. As he admits, he may be a terrible cook, but he enjoys accompanying his wife on her marketing rounds to help choose ingredients. At this point, he readily debunks the popular supposition that supplies from wet markets are fresher than those from the supermarkets.

'I think both are the same,' he said. 'What's important is how they handle it without breaking the cold chain - that is critical to keeping the freshness of the food.'

Of course, it helps that he has a rough idea of where the supplies come from, and how they are managed in the logistical process. He also talks to the traders frequently to get their input.

'Take for example, vegetables from China. It's a long distance to come. But the post-harvest handling of vegetables, using uninterrupted cold chain, gives you very good products at the end of it.

'You must remember that vegetables ... when they are harvested, they continue to breath. So if we slow down the metabolism process, then actually you will keep the freshness and quality. And refrigeration is the way.

'If you lower the temperature, they almost go to sleep - hibernate and not metabolise so fast. So the freshness is preserved, and they can travel for a long distance, for a long time and keep so much better in the fridge when you take them home.'

Spoken like a specialist.

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