A year has passed since the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) was launched to drive the harmonisation of food standards across ASEAN.

Attended by senior ASEAN officials and leading experts from the region’s food and beverage industry, the launch highlighted the importance of common food standards in facilitating intra- and extra-regional trade. It also outlined how AFBA would work to help remove technical barriers to trade and promote a collaborative approach to achieving sustainable growth in the food sector for the benefit of small, medium and large enterprises and their consumers in ASEAN markets.

Twelve months on, AFBA has engaged with a wide range of senior officials across the ASEAN Secretariat and Governments in the region, participating in discussions around the region’s economic integration efforts and launching the AFBA White Paper “ASEAN Harmonisation in the Food Sector”.

In conjunction with AFBA’s first year milestone, AFBA Executive Board Member, Hendro Poedjono, and Principal Policy Adviser to AFBA, Hanna Vitikkala, shared their insights on AFBA’s journey to date as well as upcoming priorities for the year ahead.

FIA: It has been 12 months since AFBA was established. What do you see as some of the key milestones to date?
From the outset, AFBA has been focused on developing a collaborative approach to driving the harmonisation of standards, and we have made significant developments in building strong networks in our first year.

We have made good progress in our outreach to the ASEAN Secretariat and enjoyed ongoing engagement with ASEAN’s Prepared Foodstuff Product Working Group (PFPWG). This interaction has positioned AFBA as a valuable contributor of technical and scientific expertise in the formulation of effective standards for the industry.

AFBA’s representation of the regional food industry at the ASEAN Business Investment Summit 2013 (ASEN BIS 2013) was a key highlight. Our participation offered us the opportunity to provide recommendations to increase regional food trade and work closely with an important stakeholder of the business community – the ASEAN Business and Advisory Council (ASEAN BAC).

The successful launch of the AFBA White Paper also provided an important platform to demonstrate the need for harmonisation. It also introduced discussion around mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) as an important first step towards full harmonisation.

Vitikkala: AFBA has been engaging with different committees and departments at the ASEAN Secretariat to introduce AFBA and our priorities, as well as highlight the opportunities for collaboration.

In the first six months, AFBA focused on engagement with the Senior Economic Officials Meetings (SEOM) to raise awareness of the need for harmonised food standards in ASEAN. However earlier this month, AFBA was able to deepen the relationships across ASEAN through meetings with officials from the Agriculture Industries and Natural Resources Division and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Department of the ASEAN Secretariat. These divisions also have an important role to play in the integration of various parts of the food sector across ASEAN. The meetings highlighted potential opportunities where AFBA can support their work and accelerate integration and mutual recognition around the region.

FIA: What challenges have you faced over the last 12 months?
Like many new organisations, AFBA faces challenges. In the early days of our establishment, we had a lot of work to do to introduce AFBA to critical stakeholders and to earn trust as a valuable partner to ASEAN in the lead up to AEC 2015.

At the same time, we needed to drive awareness about the importance of harmonisation, not only to the region’s food industry but to its overall economic development. Following a survey of AFBA and FIA members, we identified two clear priority areas for integration – nutrition labelling and product authorisation/registration – and we have been focused on demonstrating the benefits that harmonised standards in these areas will provide.

While these areas are critical for the food industry, feedback from the PFPWG highlighted that these two areas pose significant challenges to ASEAN member states, and are not currently part of the AEC Blueprint. Our next biggest challenge is to provide ASEAN officials with more technical solutions for these areas.

FIA: What are AFBA’s key priorities in the year ahead?
There are a number of key priorities that will allow AFBA to continue moving the dial on driving the harmonisation of standards in ASEAN. We will conduct a broad analysis on nutrition labelling to better understand the current regulatory gaps in the region, and will seek to engage further with the PFPWG Taskforce Leaders in Thailand and Malaysia to address these gaps.

We hope to deepen and broaden relationships with relevant stakeholders such as the ASEAN Secretariat, the governments of ASEAN Member States and national food and beverage associations. Through this outreach, we hope to formalise AFBA’s observer status at the PFPWG.

AFBA will also pursue further engagements with stakeholders such as the ASEAN Senior Economic Officials, the PFPWG and ASEAN Economic Ministers in the year ahead. The meetings of these bodies provide important platforms for AFBA to demonstrate our priorities and highlight what action needs to be taken to ensure the region is prepared for the launch of the AEC.

Poedjono: Plans are also underway to roll out an SME preparedness survey which will be launched in the second half of this year. The survey will help us understand the challenges and opportunities facing SMEs and pinpoint where capacity building efforts should be focused ahead of the establishment of the AEC.

AFBA is also looking to finalise the ASEAN Scorecard for the agri-food sector by July 2014, to help track the progress of integration across the sector and identify the barriers to growth. In addition, AFBA will also continue to explore the possibility of supporting the creation of national food and beverage associations in countries such as Cambodia and Lao PDR to complete the ASEAN representation for the food sector.

FIA: Moving forward, how will AFBA continue its success as the region’s vehicle for driving harmonisation?
AFBA is focused on pursuing a partnership with ASEAN to support the realisation of the AEC 2015 goal. We will therefore continue to profile AFBA as a willing partner to the economic integration goal by working closely with relevant partners and the national industry associations to identify and address issues of concern to the industry. We will also continue to develop our thinking around technical solutions to food standards barriers, in order to be able to provide the scientific and technical expertise and support needed by ASEAN through the integration process.

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