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Explainer: From Argentinian chicken to Ukrainian eggs, S’pore is casting its net further for food imports but will consumers bite?

SINGAPORE — When people were driven to panic-buy last April before a semi-lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, everything from eggs to toilet rolls flew off the shelves at supermarkets here.

Singapore diversifies the countries from which it imports common food items such as meat, vegetables and eggs, importing food from 170 countries and regions to date.

Singapore diversifies the countries from which it imports common food items such as meat, vegetables and eggs, importing food from 170 countries and regions to date.

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This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

  • Lockdowns in other countries during the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to disrupt Singapore’s food supplies
  • As such, it is important to import food such as meat and vegetables from multiple sources, say suppliers and food security experts
  • Experts also debunked the common misperception that the nutritional value of food imports from countries further away is lower than that of produce from the region
  • Cold chain management preserves the nutritional value and shelf life of frozen food, they said
  • Consumers can lookout for produce sold in whole at markets as they are more likely to have retained nutritional content

SINGAPORE — When people were driven to panic-buy last April before a semi-lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, everything from eggs to toilet rolls flew off the shelves at supermarkets here.

Although demand surged, food supplies here were not disrupted during the onset of the pandemic.

The Government, however, warned that ongoing lockdowns around the world would put increasing strain on source countries.

As such, it had to be ready for further disruptions by diversifying the countries from which it imports common food items such as meat, vegetables and eggs.

To date, Singapore imports food from 170 countries and regions. This includes onions from the Netherlands, chicken from Argentina and shrimps from Saudi Arabia.

More food items from non-traditional sources are therefore appearing on supermarket shelves, but are consumers biting?

Experts said that it may take some time for consumers here to get used to buying food from countries outside of the Southeast Asian region because there is a perception among some that fresh food and frozen food from nearer sources is more nutritious than imported frozen food from further away.

TODAY takes a look at why Singapore needs to diversify its food imports, if there is a difference in nutritional value in imports from countries further away, and how consumers can make the best choices when buying frozen produce.


Besides the threat of lockdowns, suppliers and experts pointed to a number of other reasons spurring diversification efforts.

For suppliers, past brushes with diseases such as the avian flu or the Early Mortality Syndrome that affects shrimps highlighted the need for them to have back-up supplies from different countries.

Mr Sng Kaijun, the director of Dasoon Eggs, said that his company partly turned to suppliers outside of Malaysia in 2018 because it needed a “contingency plan” in case the avian flu affected egg supplies from Malaysia.

In December that year, Malaysia had threatened to limit egg exports to ensure sufficient supply for its domestic market because the avian flu outbreak had disrupted supplies.

Singapore banned Malaysian eggs in 2004 due to an outbreak of avian flu there.

A quarter of Dasoon’s eggs are now imported from Australia, Poland, Spain, Thailand and Ukraine.

Professor Paul Teng, a food security expert from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, pointed out that factors such as climate change, inadequate labour and pests could also affect import sources.

Countries that now export food due to food surplus may also lower their exports as their population grows to meet domestic demand, Prof Teng said.

This is why it is important for Singapore to import the same food item from more than one source, he added.

Supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, which has experienced disrupted imports from various sources over the years, has a supply chain operations centre to identify disruptions to its supply chain.

For example, if a farm in the region encounters a pest infestation, the operations centre will receive an alert, allowing FairPrice to immediately increase supplies from other sources.

The operations centre also takes in information from a variety of sources such as media, weather reports and industry news to alert the supermarket to impending activities or crisis.

Eggs from Poland brought in by Dasoon Eggs. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY


In response to queries from TODAY, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said that it facilitates the import of food from both existing and new sources through a combination of regulatory and commercial means.

For instance, it promotes trade links with Poland and Ukraine by matching egg suppliers to willing importers here. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) also ensures that eggs imported from these non-traditional sources are safe for consumption.

Mr Sng of Dasoon Eggs said that he imports from farms approved by SFA and ensures that egg imports meet quality standards.

For supermarket chain Sheng Siong, it said that it takes samples of products from local importers or exporters to evaluate their safety, quality, nutritional value and cost, among others, before they are brought in here.

Over the years, it has brought in more food products imported from further or non-traditional countries such as Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine.

These include frozen shrimps from Peru and frozen salmon from Chile.

This helps to keep the supermarket’s supplies stable and affordable, Sheng Siong said. 

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Food scientists, suppliers and retailers said that the nutritional value of food imported from countries within the Southeast Asian region and those further away do not differ, as long as they are grown under the same farming conditions.

Mr Loh Guo Pei, the marketing manager of frozen seafood supplier Hong Seafood, said that with government support in other countries, seafood that was traditionally reared in Southeast Asia can now be reared in countries further away.

For example, while his company mostly imports Vannamei shrimp that is commonly bred in China and Southeast Asia, it started to import a small amount of the shrimp from Saudi Arabia after an Early Mortality Syndrome outbreak in the region in the late 2000s.

Mr Loh said that Saudi Arabia has become an exporter of the shrimp due to government support and good conditions for shrimp breeding, such as high salinity in its sea water.

Besides ensuring that produce is farmed under similar conditions as they would be in the region, food suppliers said that they relied on cold chain technology to ensure that their food imports retain their freshness and nutritional value until it reaches the shores of Singapore.

Cold chain management involves preparing, storing and transporting products at refrigerated temperatures to maintain their shelf life.

Explaining the process for seafood, Mr Loh said that once caught, seafood such as fish or shrimp is taken to a factory where it is processed, frozen and packaged.

It is then loaded onto a refrigerated shipping container at a temperature of negative 20°C or lower, depending on the product, and sailed to Singapore.

And before it is sold, it is kept frozen at a temperature of negative 18°C in his company’s warehouse.

Mr Sng, who works with the Federation of Merchants’ Associations Singapore, said that he gives out free eggs to hawkers to convince them of the quality of eggs that are not from the region.

So far, he said that he has received good response from hawkers on eggs from non-traditional sources and they are open to using them in their cooking.

Mr Loh Guo Pei, marketing manager at Hong Seafood, holding a frozen salmon. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY


Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University’s Food Science and Technology Programme, said that fresh food is not necessarily better than frozen food.

Frozen food can better preserve nutrients if the fresh food is exposed to the environment.

Frozen food “may not look as pretty” or taste as good compared to fresh food, but it has a longer shelf life than fresh food, Prof Chen added.

Mr Loh of Hong Seafood said that the quality of seafood, for example, is maintained at the point of freezing.

With advancements in technology, seafood can be frozen on trawlers right after they are caught.

This means that seafood stock can be held for longer periods and will not be affected by closures of fish ports, he added.

The freezer storage at Hong Seafood. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY


Food scientists and suppliers said that consumers should look out for the number of times a food item has been defrosted and its level of processing to gauge its nutritional value and freshness.

Mr Patrick Low, the operations manager at food testing lab Eurofins Food Testing Singapore, said vegetables that are cut, chopped or bruised lose some of their nutritional value in the process, for example.

Customers should also look out for fruit and vegetable products that are sold in whole or have been processed as little as possible. Such products are more likely to retain their nutritional content.

Mr Loh, the frozen seafood supplier, suggested that customers ask the stallholder if the meat on sale was originally frozen and later thawed.

If it has been thawed, avoid storing the meat in the freezer after purchase. This is because thawed meat is exposed to bacteria.

For customers who intend to store meat in the freezer even after purchase, Mr Loh suggested buying frozen items instead.

Mr Low of Eurofins Lab said that ice formation during the process of repeated freezing and thawing disrupts the physical structure of the meat, affecting its texture and ultimately, its taste.

Related topics

food diversify food supply import Ministry of Trade and Industry food security

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