Fine, jail or both for selling ingredients and food flouting 2g limit
FIVE times a week, housewife Doreen Tay, 56, puts bread, pastries and curry puffs on her family’s breakfast table. It has occurred to her that these foods may be unhealthy for her husband and two children, one of whom is overweight. But she says: “What can I do? I don’t know what the shops use to make their bread.” When new trans-fat limits kick in this May, consumers like her can rest assured that what they eat will have less of this harmful fat. [See graphic.]
It is raw ingredients of these food items – margarine, shortening and cooking oil – that the laws are targeted at. From May, the ingredients that are used in the locally made pastries and curry puffs Madam Tay buys will not be allowed to contain more than 2g of trans-fat for every 100g of their weight. This was announced by Minister of State for Health Amy Khor in the Budget debate on Wednesday. Imported processed or packaged foods that may have trans-fats and oils, such as biscuits and potato chips, do not fall under these new regulations. This is because many of these imports are also sold to countries in which trans-fats limits are already in force, and where trans-fat labelling is compulsory. To allow time for importers and retailers here to run down their stocks of raw ingredients high in trans-fat, import and sale of such products will barred only from May next year. After that, those who flout the rules may be fined up to $5,000; subsequent offenders may be fined up to $10,000, jailed up to three months, or both.
How serious is the problem of overconsumption of trans-fat? The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has found that three in 10 individuals here eat more than the 2g daily limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. And two-thirds of them are aged 18 to 39, the age group that tends to eat out more and snack more, said the HPB. Consumers like Madam Tay see the wisdom of the move to legislate a limit on trans-fats, but sales officer Sam Lim, 41, has his doubts. He said: “Although it’ll be better for health, I’m concerned it will affect the taste of the food.” He pointed out that some food-sellers, in a bid to spice up their dishes to compensate for a loss of taste in the future, may switch to adding other ingredients that are just as unhealthy. Among manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, there is generally less resistance. Some, being ahead of the curve, have already taken steps to comply and have found little difficulty doing so. General manager of bakery chain Four Leaves Steven Ong, for example, said the chain switched to a healthier margarine at no extra cost last year, and has not received any customer complaints. “If the taste, baking process and prices remain the same, why not?” he said. A manager of a major manufacturer of cooking oil, margarine and shortening, who declined to be named, said partially hydrogenated soya bean oil is high in trans-fat, and that a substitute like palm oil can readily be used without compromising on quality. Fast-food chain McDonald’s said it has been using vegetable oil that contains less than 0.5 per cent of trans-fat. Mr Wong Mong Hong, who heads the Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association, said the new rules are not that big a shock because other places have already taken the lead. These include the United States and European nations like Denmark; closer to home, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea already have trans-fat legislations.
The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), which is implementing the regulations with the HPB, said supermarkets will be encouraged to source for and replace fats and oils to fall in with the new rules. Supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, which has more than 200 housebrand oils and margarines that already comply with the new legislation, has been working on lowering its trans-fat-laced products since 2009, said its director of purchasing and merchandising Mui-Kok Kah Wei. That was the year that stickers with the “Healthier Choice” symbol – a red pyramid – began to come with “Trans-fat free” taglines as well. Spokesmen for supermarkets such as Cold Storage and Prime said they will work with suppliers to find out what they need to do, including changing the labels on such food items.
The HPB said food operators had expressed initial concern that the new rules would raise their operating costs, but that manufacturers had managed to leverage on a new processing method to make low trans-fat oils. “Although there are costs incurred, these are one-off and not substantial,” said Dr Grace Soon, chief nutritionist at HPB’s Centre of Excellence for Nutrition. She said the costs would largely be absorbed at the manufacturers’ level. Take, for example, Benzene International, which imports oils and fats from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to package them for sale. The company’s managing director Narayanan Ellango said he may have to order tests for each batch of oil products he imports as a precaution. “The tests are not troublesome but they will cost money,” said Mr Ellango, who estimated that each round of testing may cost the company up to $1,000. Hawker Paul Liew, who cooks up seafood dishes at his stall in Alexandra Village, is not sure yet if his costs will go up. His top concern is the quality of the healthier oils he will have to use. “If the quality is not good, the oil will turn black after two or three fryings. We will have to change the oil more often.”
What is trans-fat?
TRANS-FAT comes about when vegetable oils undergo the chemical process of hydrogenation to make them remain solid at room temperature and easier to handle. This kind of fat is bad for the body because of its double-whammy on cholesterol levels: It increases the amount of “bad” cholesterol in the blood while decreasing “good” cholesterol levels. Partially hydrogenated soya bean oil is the main source of such fats. Margarine, shortening and cooking oil account for up to 70 per cent of trans-fat Singaporeans eat on average. Studies have shown that consuming an additional 4g of trans-fat every day leads to a 23 per cent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease. The World Health Organisation has described trans-fat as an industrial additive that has “no demonstrable health benefits and poses clear risks to human health”. Other than trans-fat, saturated fats also raise one’s risk of heart disease. They are mostly found in animal fats, such as cheese and butter.