With the 2015 deadline for the ASEAN Economic Community fast approaching, Myanmar has taken over as ASEAN Chair, overseeing progress towards ASEAN’s ambitious targets.

Speaking in an interview with Channel News Asia, Mr Pushpanathan Sundram, the former Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN, outlined the momentous agenda facing ASEAN Ministers as they met in Bagan, Myanmar last week. This included a review of the ASEAN Charter to map out the future direction of ASEAN as a regional organisation; the creation of a more people-oriented ASEAN; and a review of the three ASEAN blueprints including the blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), even as ASEAN seeks to map out its post-2015 vision.

Mr Sundram, who is Principal Advisor to the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) said: “This is a significant moment for Myanmar. It is the first time it has hosted an ASEAN Summit since becoming a member of the ASEAN family in 1997.

“Ministers are looking at where progress [towards the development of the AEC] has reached and what more needs to be done before 2015. Agri-food is one of the 11 priority sectors that have been identified by ASEAN and one of the key issues facing the development of this sector is the harmonisation of standards.”

In line with these priorities, the recent Senior Economic Officials Meeting (SEOM) in Myanmar was focused on the region’s progress towards integration. Ahead of the meeting, AFBA launched a White Paper Harmonisation in the Food Sector, mapping the progress made towards integration in the agri-food sector and highlighting the importance of harmonised food standards in the development of the AEC.

The AFBA White Paper identifies the need for all stakeholders to work together to accelerate progress on agri-food agendas. To this end, it calls on the Senior Economic Officials in ASEAN to create an enabling environment within the region to facilitate greater public-private collaboration and enhanced cross-sectoral cooperation between the various committees and technical working groups. It highlights the importance of greater industry collaboration with ASEAN institutions and governments in keeping with Good Regulatory Practice (GRP) guidelines.

“It [integration] is a big task and Governments alone cannot handle this” added Mr Sundram. “This is where the industry and ASEAN must work together”.

The industry paper identifies five key areas where harmonisation or ‘mutual recognition’ of food standards would greatly enhance overall food trade for the benefit of businesses and consumers in all ten member states. It outlines how common approaches to standards on nutrition labelling; pre-market registration; import and export certification; authorisation of food ingredients and additives; and contaminant limits and analytical methods will open up the flow of food trade around the region.

Commenting on the challenges in attaining full harmonisation and industry’s role in identifying solutions, Mr. Sundram added: “The food industry is looking at Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs), which means that [countries] recognise each other’s standards, as long as they meet certain criteria. This is perhaps the first way for ASEAN to go [towards harmonisation]: more MRAs in the food sector.

“Food producers will stand to benefit because it will reduce their costs in terms of packaging, labelling, and in tweaking their products across different markets. This will result in more goods being circulated within the ASEAN region and more consumer choice,” he said.

A video copy of Mr Sundram’s Channel News Asia interview is available from the FIA and AFBA Press Office on request. Please contact info@foodindustry.asia or info@afba.co

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