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Contaminated lettuces with “possible human carcinogen”, slip past AVA, and land in supermarkets in Singapore

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has let a batch of contaminated iceberg lettuce from Malaysia slip past its inspection process to land in NTUC FairPrice and Sheng Siong supermarkets.

According to Channel News Asia news, NTUC FairPrice first observed an "anomaly" in the iceberg lettuce - which were sold under the Pasar brand with the supplier code 40 - earlier this month and had approached AVA for lab tests.

A sample of the product was then sent to AVA on Tuesday (2 Oct) for tests. Yesterday (4 Oct), FairPrice said it was informed by AVA that the product contained higher than permitted amounts of pesticide, fipronil.

"All affected products have since been removed from the stores and we are in the process of informing customers of the product recall this morning through in-store collaterals and social media," FairPrice said.

"Customers who have purchased this product from Sep 28 to Oct 4 can claim a full refund from any FairPrice store by Oct 11," it added. It also said that it was currently working closely with the Malaysian supplier and AVA to ensure that all its products meet strict quality and food safety standards.

Apparently, Sheng Siong was also affected. "Customers who have purchased the affected product from Sheng Siong may return the product with its proof of purchase to any of our stores for a full refund," Sheng Siong said.

AVA swings into damage-control mode

Meanwhile, AVA swung into damage-control mode. It issued a food recall alert late yesterday night (4 Oct) on its Facebook page to inform the public about the matter.

"AVA has directed a recall of iceberg lettuce from a Malaysian farm after detecting high levels of Fipronil, a wide-spectrum pesticide, on it. The implicated product is imported by Go Fresh Impex Pte Ltd for sale at NTUC FairPrice and Sheng Siong supermarkets. The recall is ongoing," AVA's statement said.

"Consumers who have purchased the affected products may contact the respective supermarket retail outlets for enquiries. As a good food safety practice, consumers should wash and soak vegetables to remove any pesticide residues, prior to cooking and consumption."

U.S. EPA lists fipronil as "possible human carcinogen"

According to online information from the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), a cooperative agreement between Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fipronil is used in a wide variety of pesticide products.

Fipronil kills insects when they eat it or come in contact with it. Fipronil works by disrupting the normal function of the central nervous system in insects. Fipronil is more toxic to insects than people and pets because it is more likely to bind to insect nerve endings, NPIC said.

However, people exposed to fipronil can experience side effects. Direct, short-term contact with skin can result in slight skin irritation. When individuals have eaten fipronil, reported health effects included sweating, nausea, vomiting, headache, stomach pain, dizziness, weakness, and seizures. But signs and symptoms from a brief exposure to fipronil generally improve and clear up without treatment, NPIC said.

In cancer research of fipronil in animals, researchers have fed fipronil to rats in their diet for nearly two years to find out if fipronil can cause cancer. Researchers found thyroid tumors in both male and female rats fed the highest dose. While these findings are considered to apply only to rats, fipronil is classified as a "possible human carcinogen" by the U.S. EPA.

In another study, scientists found that long-term exposure to fipronil in the diet can affect the ability of rats to produce offspring. Effects in those rats included: less mating, reduced fertility, smaller litter size, and increased loss of pregnancy. Scientists also found decreased survival and delayed development among offspring.

Scientists have also found that fipronil is highly toxic to sea and freshwater fish, as well as invertebrates. In other studies, fipronil was found to be highly toxic to some birds, but practically non-toxic to ducks. Fipronil was also found to be highly toxic to honey bees, but not toxic to earthworms.

AVA headed by ex-Deputy Police Commissioner

AVA was taken over by ex-Deputy Police Commissioner Lim Kok Thai in Oct last year.

Lim is a high flying scholar who joined AVA directly from the Singapore Police Force (SPF). Prior to helming AVA, he was the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Policy).

According to information from the National Archives, Lim first joined the Police Force in 1996 as an Assistant Superintendent of Police and has held various key appointments in the Singapore Police Force. They include the Director of Operations and Commander at the Bedok Police Division. He also served as the Senior Director, National Security Coordination Centre, National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS) at the Prime Minister’s Office in 2014.

As the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Lim oversees the Staff Departments, ensuring that the different staff functions (including Planning, Manpower, Logistics, Training, Administration and Finance) are operating at the optimal level to support SPF's capability to prevent, deter and detect crime. Specifically, Lim was involved in the planning and implementation of various initiatives to unify the Police Scheme of Service, optimise the deployment of Police National Service resources and strengthen Community Partnership.

He also closely supervised the implementation of the Unified Police Scheme which among other initiatives, merged the junior and senior police officer schemes and created a new Expert Track for talented specialist police officers. He led the conceptualisation and planning, and ensured the successful execution of the Home Team Show and Festival on 6 May last year, an inaugural event to showcase Home Team capabilities and to celebrate 50 years of National Service in the Home Team.

As the Director of Operations from 2009 to 2014, Lim led and ensured the successful execution of police operations to protect various high profile events which included the inaugural Singapore Olympics Youth Game in 2010. He was also deeply involved in the development and implementation of the nation-wide Community Oriented Policing System (COPS) and the Police Camera Project (PolCam).

In any case, prior to Oct last year, Lim has zero experience dealing with food or food safety issues.