The food industry can be much more than just a contributor or feedback mechanism for regulators; it can be a partner and stakeholder in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) according to Bev Postma, Executive Director of FIA.

Speaking at the 10th ASEAN Leadership Forum held in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, last week, Ms Postma emphasised that policy makers were under-utilising the vast pool of expertise that is held by the private sector. She commended ASEAN leaders for the progress already made towards establishing a single economic community by 2015 and urged all parties to adopt a collaborative approach in removing the remaining technical barriers to trade.

“That’s why FIA is putting its full weight behind the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) - a single, united channel through which the food industry can engage and work with governments on these issues.”, she said.

The 10th ASEAN Leadership Forum is an annual event that brings together government, business, academic and civil society leaders to discuss the critical issues and strategic challenges facing ASEAN. It also looks at ways to open up investment opportunities as ASEAN moves towards its goal of a single integrated economic community by 2015.

This year’s event focused on “shared prosperity and regional stability” following a recent decision by ASEAN Leaders to commence negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP). The RCEP will put ASEAN in the “spotlight” for key trading partners such as China, Japan, Korea, India and Australia, and therefore, speakers highlighted the importance of ensuring regional alignment and strength. Speakers included Hon. Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia’s Minister of International Trade & Industry, The Hon. Tun Abdullah Ahmed Badawi, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, H.E. Mr Lee Yi-Shyan, Senior Minister of Trade & Industry for Singapore and ASEAN Secretary General H.E Le Luong Minh.

FIA was invited to address the forum on how to better enhance private sector participation in ASEAN and how to connect small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to this process.

Ms Postma highlighted that food companies in ASEAN, especially SMEs, are currently being held back by a multitude of costs because each country has its own rules for standards such as food labelling and product registration.

“This is not a deliberate attempt to create trade barriers” she said, “but it results in increased costs for companies and consumers, reduced trade, slower growth and overall loss of regional competitiveness. Forging greater harmonisation in food standards is a high priority for ASEAN but it will involve all players across the region; from farmers to suppliers, to manufacturers and retailers. It is so important because it ensures the application of a common set of standards for things like food safety, food labeling and certification that can be achievable and practical for everyone, especially the SMEs. “

Mr Mohd. Shah Bin Hashim also attended the Forum in his capacity as Chairman for Malaysia on the AFBA Executive Board. He said, “As an industry, we understand the perils of fragmentation and we want to leverage the full support of all stakeholders to accelerate the harmonisation of food standards and reduce the remaining barriers to trade.”

Like many sectors, the food industry is poised for explosive growth in ASEAN and SMEs are at the forefront of this exciting journey. The road to integrated food standards has not been easy, but harmonised regulations can be achieved through the development of a shared vision and active collaboration between the ASEAN governments and the private sector.

“As the leading voice of food and beverage companies – large, medium and small - all over ASEAN, the AFBA Executive Board urges all nations to join forces to embrace a shared vision for integration.”

The ASEAN Leadership Forum is an important prelude to the upcoming ASEAN Business and Investment Summit 2013 (ASEAN BIS 2013) held in August on the sidelines of the ASEAN Economic Meeting in Brunei. The forum is expected to expand upon the theme of solidarity and the next steps in ASEAN’s 2014 vision.

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