FIA sits down with Science & Technical Committee Chairman Dr Leon Gorris

SINGAPORE – The FIA Secretariat recently had the opportunity to speak to Dr Leon Gorris, Unilever’s Regional Regulatory Affairs Director, and Chairman of the FIA Science & Technical Committee (S&T).

Dr Gorris shared his perspective on FIA and the challenge of addressing regulatory convergence in Asia - a key priority for the S&T Committee and its members.

FIA: As Chair of the FIA S&T Committee, what do you hope to accomplish?

Gorris: The food and beverage industry makes a huge contribution to food technology, which includes product safety and sustainable production. FIA – and the S&T Committee – bring together a massive amount of expertise, knowledge and capability in this regard which we are happy to share where possible. The first thing to do then is to make sure that governments, regulators, academics and the public are aware of both the industry’s expertise in food technology, and its contribution to social and economic growth in Asia. Asia is a growth engine, and industry is supporting that growth.

However, standards related to food safety, production and trade between countries are inconsistent and not applied evenly at both the global and regional levels. That creates a complex challenge. We wish to bring our expertise and experience from around the globe to the table and discuss with regulators why the standards are the way they are, and determine if they protect consumers in the best manner possible.

Harmonisation is the ultimate goal, by which I mean a unified, consistent approach to food safety, trade and related issues. The world is not at that stage yet but in ASEAN, we are moving toward a more regionally integrated approach leading up to what essentially may be a free movement of goods situation by 2015. Harmonisation with the global Codex Alimentarius standards, established under auspecis of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, is an important goal that governments in this particular region are working toward at their own pace.

FIA: What value will a harmonised approach bring to governments and consumers?

Gorris: Right now, there are many different standards in place, but we believe that in their current form they may not always deliver the value that governments seek. The number one goal – for industry and regulators – is protecting consumers. In our view, there is a great advantage to both governments and consumers in adopting harmonised, risk-based standards such as those developed by Codex, with a clear and consistent priority placed on public safety, without unnecessarily hindering economic growth.

With the Codex approach, regulators are more and more able to focus their governance efforts and resources where they add greatest value. The benefit is efficiency in protecting consumers balanced with aims for economic growth and development, by addressing the priority issues in terms of consumer risks now and in the future.

For consumers, there is a benefit in increased trust in public and private food safety management. They can move around the world, trusting that rules are the same or similar in different countries.

FIA: What challenges has the S&T Committee faced so far in accomplishing these goals?

Gorris: As a young organization, one of the biggest challenges has been determining how to best invest resources to bring the biggest benefit to society. We are focusing on ASEAN as a gateway, and we have sought to demonstrate that we are valuable to the ASEAN community with respect to our collective expertise and experience.

The ideal end point is a free market within the ASEAN countries. A lot of countries are working on improving import and export standards, and we are looking for key opportunities to connect with those countries and share our expertise in these areas.

The ASEAN Secretariat has an admirable and ambitious plan for economic development and they have signalled to us that we could play a role in supporting their efforts. We are eager to take that forward.

FIA: What has surprised you most about working with your peers in the S&T Committee?

Gorris: At the moment we have quite a diverse membership, but we also have many areas of common interest.

We are building trust with regulators and consumers. That’s a shared agenda. We are helping each other to do better, to ensure that good practises and lessons from the past are carried on. We would like to share this ambition more broadly and foster this mentality throughout the industry in the region. The safety of the food supply is challenged in different ways in various countries in this region but elsewhere as well. It’s in the news daily. To achieve a 100 percent safe food supply on a daily basis remains a challenge anywhere in the world. Global companies are well-positioned to show responsible leadership and we can share the rather longstanding knowledge and experience that we have accumulated to better protect consumers.

FIA: What are the primary advantages of working as part of an industry association on these issues?

Gorris: There is an advantage in seeking to reach common goals collectively. If each company pursues these goals on their own, it would be close to impossible. Doing it together makes it more feasible and effective.

Personally, I’ve learnt a huge amount from the experiences of others in different parts of the world. When we work together and share experience in terms of food safety, it’s always to the benefit of consumers.