As Singapore ventures further into novel foods and sets it sights on becoming an agri-food hub and a global “living laboratory” for food technologies, food safety remains a priority.
With production methods that seemingly tick off all that Singapore is searching for to increase the local production of food and bolster the nation’s food security, novel food seem to be the panacea, the key to unlocking Singapore’s 30 by 30 goal. Derived from sources other than the limited and unsustainable supply of traditional livestock, novel food hold promising potential in augmenting conventional methods of protein production.
Yet, breakthroughs on the novel food front have been received with caution, especially when compared to innovations in agriculture and aquaculture. Perhaps this is understandable. After all, as the definition of novel food states, these products do not have a history of being consumed as food. How can we be sure novel food is safe to eat? And can it really help to enhance Singapore’s food security?
The search for innovative urban food solutions
As a country whose reliance on imports leaves it particularly vulnerable to the fluctuations and supply disruptions in the global food system, Singapore has turned to growing more food locally as one of three key strategies to shore up its food security and ensure a supply of safe food.
Yet, with limited resources at hand – only about 1 per cent of land in Singapore is available for agriculture – the challenge is on for Singapore to grow and produce more with less, while ensuring climate, resource and economic resilience. Naturally, innovation and technology come into play as the crucial enablers to achieve sustainable food solutions.
In this vein, Singapore has gone to great lengths to create a strong and supportive enabling environment that encourages innovation to flourish.
To give the agri-food tech ecosystem a push, S$144 million in grants have been set aside under the Singapore Food Story R&D programme to drive innovation in sustainable urban food solutions, further the production of advanced biotech-based protein, and develop innovations in food safety science.
Since then, 12 projects in the domain of aquaculture and urban agriculture have been awarded over $23 million in funding under the grant’s first theme of sustainable urban food production. These projects span key research areas of genetics, disease and health management, systems and conditions optimisation, and nutrition.
Innovation is indeed the name of the game when it comes to achieving sustainable food solutions. The fine line between promoting innovation in food and ensuring food safety is thus one that Singapore has to carefully tread to strengthen the nation’s food security.
Alternative Proteins: What are they?
Alternative proteins are proteins from sources other than traditional livestock, such as plants (e.g. wheat, pea), algae (e.g. spirulina), insects, and cultured or cell-based meat (i.e. meat grown from animal cells).
While some alternative proteins such as plant-based “mock meat“ products that comprise soy or wheat proteins have long been a feature of our diets, there are also some alternative proteins which do not have a history of being consumed as food. These alternative proteins are considered novel foods, where pre-market safety assessments are required before these are allowed into the market.
Approaching novel food – safety first
Novel food hold potential that cannot be ignored. And while food safety is a key consideration for all foods, it is a particularly important consideration for food that do not have a history of consumption. To regulate novel food and assess their safety, SFA has put in place stringent processes guided by a science-based risk management approach.
Under the novel food regulatory framework rolled out in consultation with the scientific community in 2019, companies looking to introduce food or food ingredients that do not have a history of being consumed as food are required to put their products through a pre-market safety assessment. To begin, companies submit information on their products, from potential safety risks and materials used, to their manufacturing process and risk management plans, for review.
A comprehensive review is then conducted, supported by a multi-disciplinary group of experts in fields ranging from food science, bioinformatics and public health. With advice from this expert working group and by cross-referencing the information received against published scientific literature, SFA ascertains whether potential food safety issues have been addressed and evaluates the effectiveness of mitigating steps taken to manage potential risks.
In Singapore, only novel foods that are determined to have addressed the identified food safety concerns and that comply with food safety standards in the Food Regulations are allowed into the market.
Even then, labelling requirements mean that companies must include qualifying terms to indicate the true nature of their alternative protein products on the packaging. This ensures that regardless of whether a food item is from traditional meat sources or a cultured meat, consumers can, ultimately, make informed decisions about their food choices.
Pressing ahead in innovation and safety
With the rapid developments in the novel food sector, SFA’s work is far from done. To keep our novel food regulations up-to-date, SFA engages the international community actively to share good practices in the management of novel food. To date, SFA has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES). These MOUs are aimed at strengthening cooperation in the field of food safety, and collaborating in areas such as the risk and safety assessments of novel food. SFA also engaged regulatory counterparts internationally through platforms such as the Regulators’ Forum on Novel Foods in 2019, where challenges and possible solutions in the safety assessment of novel food were discussed.
More recently, SFA joined a multi-lateral collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to identify food safety hazards associated with cultured meat, and highlight strategies that food safety regulators and the industry can take to address them.
At home, Singapore in April this year saw the creation of the Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH), a collaboration between SFA, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). FRESH will drive food safety research and help build local food safety capabilities in support of Singapore’s growing food innovation ecosystem, which novel food are increasingly becoming a part of. Companies will be able to tap on FRESH for R&D and preparation for regulatory assessments for novel food, to ensure that these “first-in-market” food products are safely launched in Singapore.
After all, it is by ensuring that food safety and responsible innovation progress hand-in-hand that the balance between both is achieved.
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 14, 2020