Opinion editorial by FIA Executive Director, Ms Beverley Postma (4th April, 2014 - The Business Times)

There are few places in the world where the importance of food trade and the complexity of the food supply chain is more evident than in Singapore. With the country’s reliance on imported food products to meet 90 percent of local demand and with 75 percent of total imported food being re-exported to neighbouring countries, Singapore is dependent on food trade and a vital hub for food trade in the region.

Globally, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicts that by 2050, there will be 2 billion more mouths to feed and 76 million of these will come from Asia every year. Production needs to increase 60 percent from 2006 levels to feed this growing population, however there is only 20 percent more suitable land available to convert to agriculture. This means globally we must do more with less, and support the trade of food around the world and in Asia, to feed our growing population.

As our food supply chains become more globalised, providing greater access to food and choice, they are also becoming increasingly complex, creating new opportunities and challenges for farmers, manufacturers, distributors, regulators, food testing laboratories and consumers in the region. These challenges require ‘whole of supply chain’ solutions, which – in today’s globalised world - very often transcend national borders.

As food trade has expanded to meet this demand, more complex and incongruous food standards and regulations have been introduced unilaterally at a country level in an effort to protect the consumer. Regulations for food labelling, product registration and other essential processes are highly desirable but they vary considerably from country to country throughout Asia. This unlevel playing field hampers the efforts of food manufacturers to produce a single recipe or packaged product for more than one market or to move shipments seamlessly across borders. This significantly impacts the ability of nations to trade food around the region and limits the potential to meet the growing demand for choice. If governments could work with industry to remove these unnecessary obstacles through the process of mutual recognition or harmonisation of food standards, it would open up export opportunities for Asian companies of all sizes. This would encourage investment in the region while also delivering greater market access for small and medium sized suppliers, and would accelerate the drive for innovation in quality and choice.

As we strive to meet these regulatory and trade challenges, it’s also important to build capacity among all players in the food supply chain to maintain a high level of food safety to meet global standards. Food safety is of paramount concern for governments, the food industry and consumers in Asia, with a number of high profile incidents serving to remind us of this challenge. Food safety is the primary focus for all responsible companies and the management of risk must be inherently at the heart of any food supply chain.

This starts with farmers and food producers at a community level. Around 500 million smallholder farms worldwide are supporting around two billion people and over 80 percent of the world’s smallhold farmers are in Asia. We need to accelerate the transfer of knowledge in this ecosystem and build awareness and understanding of how to handle food in accordance with food safety standards.

Alongside this, we need to support local distributors and logistics providers with their storage and transport solutions, to ensure product quality is maintained as food is moved from producer to manufacturer to retailer. Each year about 1.3 billion tonnes of food, worth one trillion dollars, is destroyed according to the FAO. One third of the amount wasted in developing countries is because of poor farming methods, storage and transport. Poor cold chain transport systems remain an ongoing concern in the tropical parts of Asia, particularly with regard to cross contamination of produce and storage at the point of sale.

When the product reaches customs, this is another critical area for capacity building. As food safety standards evolve and more products are traded around the region, we will need more laboratories and technical scientists to monitor and drive food safety testing in the region. We need to work on developing capacity and capability within our testing laboratories around the region not just on infrastructure and personnel but on the integrity of test methodology and protocols. By way of example, the implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006) in India will require the establishment (or significant upgrade) of an estimated 75 to 150 labs over the next three years.

But most of all, we need to give our consumers confidence and transparency in the supply chain of their products, including providing more information at the point of sale on the role they too need to play in food safety and nutrition.

The food industry, together with governments and other partners in the food supply chain, is already working together to address these challenges. The World Bank’s Global Food Safety Partnership is a good example of a public-private partnership effectively working to improve the safety of food in middle-income and developing countries. It is focused on building a consistent global approach to food safety capacity building, across farmers, manufacturers, regulators and laboratories. Regional industry associations like FIA are heavily involved in this partnership along with other food safety projects looking at traceability of the food supply chain.

The supply chain and logistics community is an important part of this conversation, along with farmers, producers, manufacturers, retailers and regulators in the region. The food industry in Asia and FIA welcome the opportunity to work with all players in Singapore’s food trade hub, to strengthen the food supply chain and pass on the knowledge and expertise of world class experts and global companies who together are passionate about producing safe, high quality food.

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