Safety on Your Plate – Ensuring Food Safety in Singapore
Are we taking food safety for granted in Singapore? One scientist shares how he and his hi-res mass spectrometer ensure what you eat is safe.
In an increasingly unpredictable world — where, for example, a pandemic might disrupt entire supply chains — it has never been more important for Singapore to shore up safe, regular supplies of food. That’s why the role of the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to ensure and secure a supply of safe food is crucial.
Meet Johnny Yeung, a scientist in the Research and Risk Assessment Department at the National Centre for Food Science. “My main responsibility is to analyse data and draw insights on the impact of various food hazards on human health,” he says. “The data can come from many sources, including food safety test results, consumption data, food safety science and research, as well as alerts on food recalls around the world.”
Climate Change, COVID-19 and Cooking with Next-gen Meat
A typical day might see Johnny poring through data over a well-brewed cup of coffee. That data might come from one of many pieces of high-tech equipment he gets to play with: for example, a hi-res mass spectrometer, which reveals the chemical makeup of food products. SFA, Johnny reveals, is also looking into how they can leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to help generate even more useful food safety insights.
It was the challenge of ensuring a robust and safe food supply in the face of emerging or existential threats that drew Johnny to the agency. Take climate change, for example: “Besides posing a threat to food security, climate change also impacts food safety as it may increase consumer exposure to new and emerging safety hazards in the global food supply. This is especially challenging for Singapore since we import over 90% of our food,” Johnny says. “At the same time, Singapore is facing a shrinking workforce. By leveraging food safety risk assessment and data analysis from farm to fork, we can ‘do more with less’ to ensure a supply of safe food.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted focus of nations from food supply efficiency to food supply resilience by diversifying operations, markets and supply chains. This change in mindset has led to a greater push to increase local food production and demand in Singapore. For Johnny, the pandemic catalysed the digital transformation of the workplace where technology such as robotics and automation are used to enhance his work in food safety.
And what about food that didn’t exist a few years ago? Have you sampled the latest food trend — cultured meat? Johnny’s been a part of that too, as a member of the risk assessment team that evaluates the safety of alternative proteins. To ensure such products meet acceptable standards, SFA requires companies to seek pre-market approval for novel food and food ingredients. Only after SFA has rigorously judged food products safe are these food products cleared to tempt you on your plate.
Out of Tragedy, a Critical Mission
A meaningful career is driven not just by passion, but sometimes by events that help to crystallise our thinking. That was certainly the case for Johnny, when he heard about the 2008 melamine milk scandal in China, where some 300,000 children fell gravely ill because of a hazardous chemical added to infant formula to artificially boost protein levels. This tragedy had a profound impact on him in wanting to make a real difference.
That milk scandal, he says, “demonstrates how chemical molecules, small as they may be, can have a massive impact on public health. I chose to be a scientist to commit my interest in food chemistry towards addressing such safety concerns for the greater good of the community.”
With such life and death decisions as a core part of SFA’s mission and Johnny’s everyday life, it’s not a role that he takes lightly. “It gives me a deep sense of duty to know that my work plays a critical role to safeguard public health in Singapore,” he says.