More innovation on the menu for food sector

For popiah lovers, a small revolution is at hand.

A local firm has found a way to microwave popiah without leaving the skin soggy and unappetising. Instead, it comes out firm and tasty.

This and other delicacies - like bak kwa made from okra, and chocolate buzzing with extra caffeine - were some of the mouth-watering products showcased by local food makers yesterday, as Singapore ramps up efforts to make food manufacturers here more innovative.

Another breakthrough, a high-pressure food processing sharing facility, looks set to give firms here a vital edge by extending the shelf life of food.

Ms Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, and Culture, Community and Youth, launched the latest Industry Transformation Map (ITM) for food manufacturers yesterday, setting out strategies to develop Singapore as a leading food and nutrition hub.

"Food is very important to Singaporeans, and our food manufacturing industry can be justifiably proud of supplying the market with tasty and safe products.

"With the launch of the ITM, we want to take things to the next level with the help of industry, enterprises, associations and government agencies," she said.

Dr Leong Lai Peng, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) food science and technology programme, said high-pressure processing can extend the shelf life of food from a few days to as much as a few years.

Compared to preservation methods that mostly involve preservatives or extreme temperatures, it is a "less harsh" method allowing food to retain its texture and nutritional value, she added.

The technology is new in Singapore and not many companies use it. However, Dr Leong said the facility will be in high demand.

"The first question which companies always ask when they work with NUS is: How do we extend the shelf life of the product?" she said.

The ITM strategy aims to achieve compound annual productivity growth of 4.5 per cent in the sector, creating some 2,000 new jobs for professionals, managers, executives and technicians by 2020.

Last year, the industry contributed $3.7 billion to economic output, and employed about 40,000 staff.

The four aspects of the ITM are aimed at helping companies to innovate, internationalise and automate, and at creating jobs.

One key initiative is the creation of the Food Innovation Cluster to share resources, such as the high-pressure processing resource sharing facility, expected to be ready in the second half of next year.

Other initiatives under the ITM include the Singapore Food Manufacturing Sector Field and Forum, a programme to be held in classrooms and factories to help companies discuss operational challenges and implement better operations.

Spring, SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore will develop a framework for a common reference of skills required for the industry by the end of next year.

The road map was launched as Ms Sim gave out the inaugural Food Innovation Product Awards.

Home-grown firm Mr Popiah clinched the top prize for the microwaveable popiah. Its skin remains firm by preventing water in the popiah filling from seeping in, said Mr Lewis Tan, the firm's general manager.

The popiah has been on sale in vending machines at polytechnics and hospitals for about a week, and Mr Tan said demand has been so strong that the machines have to be refilled "a few times" a day.

Ms Li Li Hong, Mr Popiah's managing director, said the ITM's automation support package for grant, tax and loan incentives will be very helpful in the firm's automation efforts.

Mr Popiah is 70 per cent automated, she said, but when it expands production, it might have to produce up to a hundred times more output, requiring greater automation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'More innovation on the menu for food sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe