Hogging the headlines these past few days has been the world-wide health scare created by some milk-based items imported from China, ranging from confectionery to beverages.
These items are being removed from shelves in retail outlets due to contamination by a toxic chemical called melamine which is added to diluted milk to stimulate protein synthesis.
In all this excitement and discomfort, the one thing that has evaded attention in Singapore is the inaction of the government regulatory body Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).
The AVA as a statutory board came into being in April 2000 after the then Primary Production Department was restructured to give it “greater autonomy and flexibility” to respond more effectively to the “challenges faced by the food and agriculture industry,” its website claims.
The AVA also subjects food items to stringent laboratory tests before allowing them to reach the consumers to “ensure a resilient supply of safe and wholesome food.”
The wesbite further claims that the Authority “offers a comprehensive range of analytical services covering a wide spectrum of chemical and microbiological hazards. Its capabilities cover tests for disease, food poisoning and spoilage organisms, harmful chemicals, toxins and economic fraudulence.”
In spite of all these lofty claims AVA’s competence in handling the present China milk scandal is questionable at best. In the first place how did these tainted milk-based items from China escape the organisation’s tests and scrutiny especially when a few of these products have been circulating in Singapore for a couple of years at least?
Government leaders often claim that Singapore is unique, not to be compared with other countries when it comes to efficiency and quality of service. If that’s the case we should expect much more. But even as Hong Kong testers were sounding the alarm, the AVA were still saying that the milk products in Singapore were safe. What happened to AVA’s regulatory function mandated under the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority Act?
In its latest statement yesterday, the AVA said it had detected melamine in an additional five products imported from China, bringing the total number of affected products to eight. AVA also says it has suspended the import and sale of all milk and milk products from China since 19 Sep 08.
Are we to understand that these contaminated products were earlier allowed in despite testing at AVA? Was someone asleep at the switch? If not, how did these items reach the supermarket shelves?
How are we going to be assured that food items are safe for consumption despite all the assurances from the AVA? The Government has a responsibility to clear the air and level with the people about the performance of the AVA and cease, once and for all, its empty rhetoric about competence and efficiency being its hallmark.