AFBA Paves the Way towards Harmonised Food Standards in ASEAN  


By Dr Siti Noorbaiyah Binti Abdul Malek, Senior Science & Regulatory Affairs Manager, Food Industry Asia (FIA) and Principal Technical Advisor, to the ASEAN Food & Beverage Alliance (AFBA)


On 1 December, the ASEAN Business Club (ABC) submitted its ground-breaking Lifting-The-Barriers Initiative (LTBI) Report to Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry, YB Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed. The report sets out the industry’s recommendations and vision for accelerating the removal of trade barriers in the region and calls on ASEAN leaders to work with the private sector to realise the full potential of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 and beyond.

The report contains a thought-provoking chapter on the food & beverage industry that was researched and contributed by the ASEAN Food & Beverage Alliance (AFBA). This new Alliance was formed in 2013 to unite the leading food and beverage industry associations across the ten member states of ASEAN and to facilitate intra and extra-regional trade for the benefit of small, medium and large enterprises and their consumers in the region. In its contribution to the LTBI report, AFBA sets out the need to accelerate the harmonisation of food regulations and standards and advocates for the use of mutual recognition arrangements (MRAs) to drive a spirit of collaboration.

The LTBI Report has been a yearlong exercise involving core research and stakeholder surveys. It aims to identify the bottlenecks and barriers to freer trade in the context of the AEC 2015 and is part of the wider LTB Initiatives under ABC and CIMB ASEAN Research Institute (CARI).




 
ASEAN has made significant progress towards its ambitious goal of establishing an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015. As of September 2014, it has achieved 82.1% implementation rate for the AEC Blueprint (2008-2015). While ASEAN’s achievement in lowering and eliminating import duties are laudable, there are concerns over the increasing non-tariff barriers that are replacing tariffs. This could become an obstacle to fully realising the vision for AEC 2015.

As one of the 12 priority sectors of integration under AEC 2015, agro-based products sector of ASEAN, which includes food products, will benefit immensely if ASEAN is able to effectively address the trade impediments. The agri-food sector contributes significantly to the integration efforts of ASEAN as majority of ASEAN members rely heavily on this sector for economic growth, trade and investment. 235 million people in ASEAN are involved in the agri-food sector making it the largest employer in the region.

The trends in agro-based products trade necessitate the attention of ASEAN, as lately it is one of the fastest growing sectors in the region. However, due to the unrealised potentials in this sector, its share of contribution to the total trade of ASEAN still hovers around 4%.

ASEAN has responded to the situation and has achieved some degree of success in the food sector, including in the areas of food hygiene and control, and food testing and analysis. It has also adopted a number of guidelines in the areas such as food hygiene, import-export inspection and certification, and labelling of pre-packed food. A mutual recognition arrangement for conformity assessment is also being prepared for signing in 2015.

In the LTBI report, the following key recommendations were made by AFBA.

Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs)

MRAs is the first step to removing regulatory and technical barriers as it is a lower cost model suitable for situations where a negotiated harmonised set of standards is unlikely. It helps to find a mechanism to recognise equivalence in outcomes despite regulatory differences across different jurisdictions. Apart from the MRAs on conformity assessment, ASEAN could also look at MRAs on standards, additives and contaminants so that products that comply with one country are deemed to comply with all countries in ASEAN. MRAs on labelling will also be useful so that labelling requirements are harmonised amongst all countries and products can be traded without obligation to re-print or over-label for specific markets.

Collaboration

AFBA calls for closer collaboration with governments in the region to create better understanding, to share knowledge and to find ways to jointly address the impediments to facilitate trade, meet consumer demand and assure the wellbeing of the ASEAN Community. Here, it emphasises the role the ASEAN Secretariat could play as an interlocutor and conduit for promoting public –private collaboration to streamline the interaction process between the two key stakeholders of AEC.

Multi-Sectoral Technical Committee

AFBA has also emphasised the need to set up a multi-sectoral technical committee involving the standards, trade, health, and agriculture bodies in ASEAN to address effectively the cross cutting issues in the food sector. Multi-sectoral committees are not new to ASEAN and this could be effective if sufficient mandate is accorded by ASEAN to carry out the required tasks. AFBA has also recommended the use of good regulatory practice that meets international benchmarks when designing and implementing new legislation as well as in instituting unilateral actions in the food sector.

As the voice of the food and beverage industry in ASEAN, AFBA provides the platform for a unique public-private engagement between Government and industry in the region. The harmonisation of food standards can be achieved by exploring avenues to jointly address the impediments of food trade and by sharing knowledge to better understand and meet consumer demands. ASEAN is poised for explosive growth only if both the public and private sectors can enhance their cooperation and collaboration in addressing non-tariff barriers. The ultimate beneficiary will be the people and consumers of ASEAN thereby enhancing their wellbeing in the ASEAN Community.


Dr Siti Noorbaiyah Binti Abdul Malek is the Senior Science & Regulatory Affairs Manager at Food Industry Asia (FIA), where she oversees the organisation’s science and regulatory activities. She also manages the Secretariat for the ASEAN Food & Beverage Alliance (AFBA). Dr Siti serves as the President of the Malaysian Institute of Food Technology (MIFT) and is a member of the Malaysian Food Analysts Council. She is also a member of the National CODEX Working Committee on Food Labelling, Food Hygiene and Food Contaminants, and has served as a Malaysian Delegate at CODEX Committee Meetings. Dr Siti holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Food Science from Rutgers University, New Jersey and a Master’s Degree in Food Science from Michigan State University.

The ASEAN Food & Beverage Alliance (AFBA) is a group of national associations in Southeast Asia involved in the manufacture, distribution and sale of food and beverage products. Working as a dedicated non-profit body committed to effectively representing the food industry within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), AFBA aims to facilitate intra and extra-regional trade in ASEAN by supporting and accelerating the ASEAN harmonisation process for the benefit of small, medium and large enterprises and their consumers in the ASEAN markets. For more information, please visit www.afba.co


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