Singapore Food Agency Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 12 February 2019)

Mr Speaker sir, the Singapore Food Agency Bill seeks to create a single agency to manage food safety and security across the supply chain. The new Singapore Food Agency or SFA will subsume the food-related functions of AVA, NEA and HSA. NEA’s food hygiene arm, which has been the front-line agency dealing with the recent spate of food poisoning cases, as well as HSA’s food safety lab, will be subsumed under the SFA. As such, the SFA will be in charge of food safety and also national food security. The AVA’s remit of regulating and nurturing the farming sector will also, presumably, come under the new SFA.

The Bill creates a one stop shop for food licensing as well as food safety inspection and response. This promises a number of benefits. For example, the fact that one agency is licensing central kitchens and caterers means that businesses may be able to save costs by not duplicating locations for these distinct facilities, cost-savings which may be passed onto consumers. As such, this Bill is a step in the right direction and I do not oppose the Bill. I do, however, have several questions and comments.

Before I continue, I declare my interest as the CEO of a research consultancy that undertakes studies in the agri-food space, among other sectors.

Food safety

Firstly, I would like to speak about food safety. The WHO has said that unsafe food is a global threat, contributing to over 300,000 deaths in 2010, for example. Most deaths are caused by pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli and norovirus and the majority of lives lost are in Africa and Southeast Asia.

There is a widespread perception of a recent spike in food poisoning cases at restaurants and caterers in Singapore, leading to illness and in one case death – the tragic death of the late Mr Fadli Saleh in November last year, seemingly as a result of a mass food poisoning incident. There were five reported mass poisoning incidents in the last quarter of 2018 alone.

At the end of the day, I suspect that the problem of unsafe food from food-service outlets comes down to the human factor – an employee showing up for work when he or she is ill, a supervisor willing to turn a blind eye to that, individual negligence in food handling practices and so on.

Would the new SFA consider taking a long, hard look at the entire profession of food handlers, which is to say all those involved in food preparation and handling, to understand if their conditions of work, compensation and workplace environment are in line with global norms? If, and I stress if, poor compensation, career prospects and treatment by employers are persistently found in this industry, while it does not absolve individuals from individual responsibility, it would, perhaps, explain the root causes which need to be addressed. I would urge the new SFA to look deeply into the conditions of work of food handlers, including their economic conditions, to understand if there is more we could do to address the root causes of such incidents.

Having said that, penalties, enforcement and deterrence are important parts of a healthy food safety eco-system. In this regard, I note that some larger and more organised food-service outlets have their own corporate whistle-blower hotlines, though I very much doubt that the same can be said for most companies in the industry. I would like to ask whether the government will look into making a food safety whistle-blower hotline mandatory for large food-service outlets, since detecting food safety lapses is in the interest of the companies themselves. At the very least, would the government consider instituting protections for whistle-blowers who identify legitimate food safety problems and enable their rectification. In the United States, laws exist to protect employees who blow the whistle on food safety violations. For instance, under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Food Safety Modernization Act (2011) has provisions against retaliation toward whistle-blowers by food businesses. The UK, China and other countries also have similar laws and regulations.

Next, I would like to confirm that, in addition to sample checks of imports, the SFA will also conduct proactive surveillance of global news reports to identify potential food safety dangers among global food exporters to Singapore, so that proactive preventive action can be taken. This issue came to the fore in the recent case of about the possibility of needles in strawberries imported from Australia.

Next, I would like to ask if the government currently publishes the results of its sample food safety checks in aggregate form, that is to say without naming specific establishments, as this will serve as a useful barometer on how well we are doing. If this is not done, can this be considered? For example, the US regularly publishes the results of its national residue program that inspects meat, poultry and egg products for chemical residues.

Lastly on food safety, I would urge the SFA to look into food labelling requirements. Can nutrition labelling be made mandatory rather than being only recommended? According to the EU’s Global Nutrition Update 2018, 26 countries (including Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea), all the member states of the EU and all the member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council now make nutrition labelling mandatory, while 13 countries have a voluntary labelling regime of which Singapore is one. Allergens such as nuts should be clearly called out on food labels, given the rise in diagnosis of allergies. Also, would the SFA consider making it compulsory for food importers to declare on the label the quantity of total and added sugar, as is now the case in the US? Right now the Handbook on Nutrition Labelling does not list sugar as a core nutrient that is recommended to be listed. Added sugar should be called out so as not to deter consumption of natural sugars in healthy food products like fruit. The inclusion of added sugars on the label can be a tool in the effort to educate the public about the health risks associated with excessive consumption of refined, added sugars.

Domestic, high-tech farming and national food security

Next, I would like to speak about the farming sector. In the government press release announcing this Bill, MEWR Minister Masagos said: “The formation of the SFA is timely as Singapore aims to turn our food challenges into opportunities. The SFA will work closely with industry partners to develop new solutions and products… (such as) climate resilient farming solutions and advanced food manufacturing techniques.”

The SFA, I assume, will take over the role of nurturing and regulating the farm sector in Singapore. This is a subject I have spoken about in Parliament several times before. I would like to urge the SFA to focus on several key areas in this effort.

Firstly, the SFA should use all available tools to grow the high-tech, high-value-added farming sector in Singapore, especially local enterprises that are applying technology and innovation to raise yield per square metre of footprint in land-scarce Singapore. The rate of disbursement of the $63m Agriculture Productivity Fund, launched in 2014, appears to be low. As per the answer to my Parliamentary Question in July 2018, over $13 million has been awarded to 74 farms from the Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) to date, of which only over $7 million has been disbursed.

Secondly, in 2017, Minister of State Dr Koh Poh Koon shared that the government’s local food production targets are 10% for vegetables, 30% for hen eggs and 15% for food fish, and our production has generally been rising over the years. I would like to ask if we are making progress on these targets. No doubt it is unlikely that we will ever produce all our food domestically in the foreseeable future, but with recent advances in indoor farming technology and the presence of government support, is there room to raise these targets, using the tool of the Agriculture Productivity Fund to support local farms in raising output?

Thirdly, I hope the SFA will also address a number of the issues I have spoken about in Parliament relating to the farming sector – the length of leases (where there has been some improvement), a level playing field for local start-ups in farm tenders and the need to promote adoption of effective insurance against both natural and man-made disasters.

Emerging trends in the food industry

Lastly, Mr Speaker sir, an emerging trend in the global food industry is that of micro-brands, which is to say start-ups developing their own unique food products and selling these online.

As reported in The Economist, the biggest 25 food-and-beverage companies generated 45% of sales in America but drove only 3% of the total growth between 2011 and 2015. A long tail of 20,000 companies below the top 100 produced half of all growth. These start-ups sell all manner of food products, from Greek yoghurt and micro-brewed beer to allergy-friendly snacks.

It is important that our regulation and inspection framework keep abreast of this trend and ensure food safety in these supply chains, both during production and delivery.

At the same time, we should embrace relevant global trends. Food micro-brands can help increase choice and reduce cost – which micro-brands have helped bring about in other non-food categories like mattresses and shaving razors. At the same time food micro-brands could create good jobs in Singapore and could be a domain for fruitful local entrepreneurship. Will the business of nurturing food industry companies be handled by SFA or will it still be driven by organizations like Spring and EDB?

Thank you.