The rapid growth in global food trade, particularly in Asia, has increased the complexity and interdependency of the global food supply chain, creating new challenges for regulators and food testing laboratories in the region.

Dr Paul Young, Senior Director of Food & Environment Business Operations at Waters Corporation explained to FIA how the rapidly increasing trade of foods – particularly ready-to-eat foods, fresh produce and seafood – is placing significant pressure food testing laboratories in the region as they continually try to meet the raft of new standards as well as the growing volume of food that requires testing.

On the sidelines of FIA’s Joint Committee Meeting and the Consumer Goods Forum’s Health and Wellness Committee meeting, the FIA Secretariat had the opportunity to speak with Dr Young about the challenge facing food testing laboratories in Asia and how Governments, academia and the private sector need to work together to build capacity and harmonisation across food safety testing networks in Asia.

FIA: Why is there such a critical need to build laboratory capability across Asia?

Paul Young
: Food trade has soared over the last two decades with global food exports totaling around USD 1.1 trillion every year. In ASEAN, food trade is growing by between 7 – 9 percent annually as regulators and consumers across the region demand higher levels of food safety and quality. These trends are driving a significant increase in demand for skilled laboratory technicians and technology that can test domestically produced, and imported food to relevant national and international standards.

Regulations are also changing in many countries throughout Asia. The gradual implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006) in India, for example, will require the establishment or significant upgrade of an estimated 75 to 150 labs over the next three years. India regulators have already recognised that these laboratories then require the right equipment and technical talent capability, to deliver against high quality testing standards. With rising trade, consumer expectations and increasing food safety regulation, you can quickly see how important capacity building across the region’s food safety network becomes.

FIA: We understand Waters Corporation is already starting to look at ways to build capacity both in Asia and around the world through a public-private partnership. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Paul Young
: Waters Corporation has established two International Food Safety Training Laboratories (IFSTL), the beginning of a Global IFSTL Network, in response to this very challenge. We recognised the need to address the critical gap in food safety testing training both here in Asia and around the world.

The Global IFSTL Network will be an integrated network of five food safety training laboratories, strategically positioned to train food safety scientists in the major food hubs around the world. Each IFSTL is run as a public-private partnership between Government regulators, academia and Waters Corporation, to allow government regulators to provide technical assistance to scientists involved in food safety testing through education to develop best practice testing methodologies and deliver fit-for-purpose methods of analysis. The training laboratories provide education to food scientists in both public and private sectors, who pay for the training, to cover costs and to ensure they have a commitment to the course. We believe this unique model will not only help to strengthen the safety of the food supply chain, it will build trust between trading partners which will have a real-world impact on the movement of high quality, safe food products.

Our first laboratory was set up two years ago in Maryland, USA, and is a partnership between the Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA), the University of Maryland (UMD) and Waters. In this partnership, UMD has provided the IFSTL space, put in place a management structure, recruited full time training instructors, developed curricula and provided training. The FDA supports the lab through the input to the development of curricula and the delivery of training; and Waters provides instrumentation, technical and management support through an advisory council that has been established.

This lab, together with the IFSTL opened in the United Kingdom last year, has trained more than 200 people, from more than 40 countries.

We are now exploring potential collaboration with public sector partners in India, China and South-East Asia, to support Asia’s major food trade hubs.

FIA: We understand you are discussing the establishment of an IFSTL in India with the National Institute for Food Technology and Entrepreneurial Management. How would an India IFSTL differ from the labs that have already been established in the US and UK to meet the country’s specific needs?

Paul Young: India’s potential for growth in the food and agriculture industry is enormous. Indian leaders and companies have widely recognised that the food processing industry is a ‘sunrise’ industry which will play an important role in the country meeting its economic growth target of 9.5 per cent by 2017. In order to drive substantial growth across the industry, local training on fit-for-purpose food safety testing methods, as well as food safety regulations in importing countries, is needed.

At the same time, India’s recent strengthening of food safety regulations has driven a much greater need for testing capabilities in the country. It’s critical that these labs are equipped with skilled talent.

When established in India, the IFSTL will provide the country’s food regulators with an important tool to ensure scientists receive training on the latest methods and technologies; help Indian food producers increase their export abilities by providing up-to-date training on current regulations in key markets; help to improve the safety of India’s domestic food supply by driving a greater understanding of best practices for testing the safety of food products; and help to build confidence and increase trust with key trading partners.

Each IFSTL is designed to meet the needs of the country or region where it is based. In India, we expect the laboratory will focus on training predominantly local talent, while our participants at our programmes in the US and the UK are typically half local and half international.

FIA: How can partnerships like this help drive the harmonisation of food testing standards and practices?

Paul Young: Capacity building and training initiatives focus on relevant domestic and international standards to ensure participants are able to meet the testing needs of domestically produced as well as imported or exported food products. This means participants start to better understand other common approaches to food testing around the world, which helps to drive a greater understanding of different approaches and best practice testing methodologies.

Secondly, by connecting these laboratories, we start to see greater collaboration on food safety testing and best practice. One laboratory and public sector partner is more readily able to connect with another laboratory and explore ways to address a new food safety regulation or issues. By opening these lines of communication between Government, academic and the private sector on food safety, a much more harmonised approach to testing can be explored, while also maintaining the unique testing characteristics in any given country. Collaboration is also required to encourage more proficiency testing around the region. It is one step to ensure laboratories are using a common methodology to food testing, but we also need to ensure it is applied in the same way. The more collaborative efforts around testing, the more common this proficiency testing will become in the region – creating a common benchmark for standards and how they are applied.

Harmonised food standards are critical to support the growing food trade and in order to achieve a harmonised approach we need industry, Government and academia to work together.

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