SPEECH BY MS GRACE FU MINISTER FOR SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT AT THE OFFICIAL OPENING OF THE NATIONAL CENTRE FOR FOOD SCIENCE ON 27 OCTOBER 2023 AT NATIONAL CENTRE FOR FOOD SCIENCE
Research and industry partners
Ladies and gentlemen,
1 Good afternoon. I am delighted to join you at the official opening of the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) National Centre for Food Science (NCFS) facility.
Food supply and safety risks
2 Food is an essential human need and a topic close to the hearts of Singaporeans. As a diverse, multi-cultural society, we enjoy a wide variety of foods. Most of what we eat is imported which means that we face the risk of global food supply chain disruptions.
3 Food supply chains have become more volatile, and prone to disruptions. We have seen this with the effects from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Closer to home, Singapore’s pork supplies were disrupted due to occurrence of African Swine Fever in Pulau Bulan early this year. We are also increasingly seeing the impacts of climate change on food production yields. Securing a stable supply of safe food will become increasingly challenging.
4 Global food safety risks are constantly evolving. Climate change increases the likelihood of growth and transmission of certain foodborne pathogens. For instance, in the event of a severe flood, agricultural products can be contaminated by run-offs from industrial facilities or decaying animals. Innovations in food science are introducing novel foods, offering new opportunities to feed the world. Ensuring that such novel food is safe is critical to protect public health.
5 Last year, we saw cases of food safety lapses that compromised public health. In November 2022, more than 300 people fell ill after eating food from a catering company. SFA suspended the company’s operations, conducted thorough investigations and implemented the necessary corrective measures. In March 2023, SFA detected aflatoxin and arsenic exceeding permissible levels in a brown rice powder product. To protect consumers, especially vulnerable groups, SFA conducted a recall of the product.
NCFS’ crucial role in food safety and enhancement of its capabilities
6 As the national authority for food safety, SFA plays a key role in implementing an integrated farm-to-fork food safety system that is risk-based and guided by science.
7 NCFS is Singapore’s national reference laboratory for food science and the bedrock of SFA’s integrated food safety programme. It leverages scientific expertise to shape the food safety ecosystem, and has key competencies in food safety regulatory sciences, food safety diagnostics, data science and R&D.
8 Since its establishment in 2019, NCFS has achieved significant progress in enhancing its laboratory and research capabilities. First, for food poisoning outbreak investigations, NCFS leverages whole genome sequencing to obtain genetic information about bacteria or other germs. Compared to gold standard traditional laboratory techniques, this enables more accurate testing by 10 to 15 per cent in an outbreak. In a recent food poisoning outbreak, NCFS used whole genome sequencing to investigate what caused the outbreak. The same bacteria that was detected in the sick people was also found in the raw seafood, suggesting cross-contamination between raw and cooked food. This helped to identify the food safety lapses at the premise, and determine the mitigating measures required.
9 Second, NCFS has established key capabilities to identify unknown hazards in new food and food production systems. These include new techniques such as non-targeted analysis (NTA), metagenomics and predictive analytics, which can detect unknown chemicals or biologicals. For example, NCFS has utilised such capabilities to screen for unknown chemicals in leafy vegetables and fish grown with black soldier fly larvae and frass to inform food safety risk assessment.
10 Third, to support faster response to food incidents and emergencies, NCFS developed the Mobile Laboratory – a lab on wheels. Equipped with multi-disciplinary capabilities, this vehicle is able to rapidly detect radionuclides, common foodborne pathogens as well as pesticides and residues. This ability to conduct rapid, on-site testing and diagnostics supports SFA’s operations and food surveillance capabilities. The mobile lab has been deployed to support large events such as the National Day Parade.
11 Besides building its laboratory and research capabilities, NCFS strives to stay at the forefront of food safety regulatory science. NCFS introduced the novel food regulatory framework for risk assessment of novel food. This helped Singapore become the first country in the world to approve cultured chicken for consumption after it passed our safety assessment framework. I am heartened that NCFS has been recognised internationally for its contributions to food safety, and has been designated regionally as the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Food Contamination Monitoring. NCFS is also designated the World Organisation for Animal Health Collaborating Centre for Food Safety and ASEAN Food Reference Laboratories for multiple food safety testing areas.
12 These accolades attest to the professionalism and expertise of the NCFS staff. In the next phase of its development, NCFS will continue to intensify efforts to promote global regulatory science for food safety and strengthen its future-ready food safety system.
Food Safety and Security Bill
13 Beyond NCFS’s food safety capabilities, we must continue to work closely with industry and consumers to strengthen food safety and security. It is a joint responsibility. Everyone in the supply chain has a part to play in ensuring food is safe. I spoke earlier about how food supply chains have become more volatile, and prone to disruptions. Government, industry and consumers also have a joint responsibility to ensure a supply of safe food for Singapore.
14 These reasons are why we are working towards introducing a Food Safety and Security Bill. The Bill will bring together food-related provisions across eight existing Acts into one Act. It will introduce enhancements to our food safety regime to better protect consumers, and introduce new provisions to better safeguard our food security. These changes will allow SFA to take a broader range of actions to safeguard food safety. For instance, the Bill will provide greater legal clarity on the regulatory framework for new food innovations, such as novel food and gene-edited crops. We will also, in consultation with the industry, look into enhancing the requirements on food safety systems and processes. We are also looking into providing the Government with the legal powers to better assure Singapore’s food security, in light of more frequent global food supply disruptions. This would include bringing over existing powers for the Rice Stockpile Scheme.
15 SFA has started carrying out early engagements with industry associations and key stakeholders, to hear their thoughts on how we can all work together to collectively ensure a resilient supply of safe food for Singapore. I look forward to hearing from and co-creating with our industry and community partners, to shape our new food legislation.
16 In closing, I would like to thank all past and present NCFS officers for their exceptional dedication and achievements towards food safety. I also want to acknowledge our local academia, research, industry partners, as well as members of the public, for their unwavering trust and support. Let us continue to build on these successes and the strong partnership to further bolster food safety in Singapore.
17 Thank you.