Public-private Initiative to Train GMS Scientists in Food Safety Lab Testing Launches in Singapore

Effective, fit-for-purpose laboratory testing for food safety forms the cornerstone of food safety control – this was the underlying theme of a week-long training programme for 14 food safety scientists chosen by the six ministries of agriculture in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

The programme, led by the International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL), is the first out of three phases of a pilot capacity-building programme borne out of a partnership among Food Industry Asia (FIA), its member companies Waters Corporation and Nestlé, and the GMS Core Agriculture Support Program (CASP) Phase ll through the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Food safety government scientists from across the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), along with experts from the International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the GMS Core Agriculture Support Program Phase ll (CASP), Waters Corporation, Nestlé and Food Industry Asia (FIA), gathered 4-8 December 2017 in Singapore for Phase One of a laboratory capacity-building pilot programme on food safety laboratory testing.

The lab capacity-building initiative was launched as an outcome from public-private dialogues at The Second GMS Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting (GMS AMM-2) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in September this year.

Through the multi-stakeholder partnership, FIA had made a pledge to support the six GMS countries – the Kingdom of Cambodia; People’s Republic of China, specifically Yunnan province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Republic of the Union of Myanmar; Kingdom of Thailand; and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – in building capacity and strengthening food safety systems across the region.

The lab capacity-building programme leader, IFSTL, is a 4,600 square-foot laboratory facility located on the UM campus. It is the home of a Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) programme that focuses on laboratory capacity-building to ensure the safety of the US food supply and harmonisation of analytical methods worldwide.

JIFSAN was established between the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the University of Maryland (UM) in April 1996. The Institute is a jointly administered, multidisciplinary research, education and outreach programme. Working through multi-stakeholder partnerships on collaborative projects with federal and state agencies, private industry, consumer and trade groups, and international organisations with mutual interests, JIFSAN promotes food safety and human nutrition, among other objectives.

    Dr Janie Dubois, Laboratory Manager at the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), leads programme participants in theoretical training on testing for mycotoxins in food.

From 4-8 December at the Waters Pacific Pte. Ltd. offices and lab in Singapore, Dr Janie Dubois, Laboratory Manager, JIFSAN, led the scientists through a theoretical framework and analytical techniques in the testing for mycotoxins and aflatoxins in various food commodities.

The main challenge to be addressed by this programme is the inability of many developing countries to test for food contaminants of safety and trade impact concerns, such as aflatoxins, pesticides and veterinary drug residues. The lack of verification within production countries results in a loss of trust in the supply chain and lack of cross-recognition of certificates of analysis, which in turn can devalue the commodities and close some export markets.

In addition, the lack of analytical capacity prevents health authorities from being able to understand the exact exposure of their population to contaminants domestically, participate in discussions on Codex standards and also enter new trade channels. This lack of information can also lead to the adoption of maximum limits that are unrealistic for the country and that can become non-tariff trade barriers leading to trade disputes.

The training in Singapore emphasised that while food safety lab testing does not create safe food per se, it plays important roles in verification of the efficacy of food safety management systems, in surveillance of in-market foods to serve as an early warning of issues, and often plays an important role in ensuring market access through product certification. However, this is only possible if there is a high degree of trust that the testing is being carried out in accordance with international best practices.

   Mr Nguyen Cong Chuc, Chief of Chemical Laboratory, Vietnam's National Agro-Forestry-Fisheries Quality Assurance Department -Branch 1, works on a technique recommended for food safety testing by programme trainer Dr Janie Dubois, Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) Laboratory Manager, in the Waters Pacific Pte. Ltd. lab in Singapore.

On the third day of training, participants visited the Nestlé Quality Assurance Centre (NQAC) in Singapore, where they learned about the role of a food industry leader, and its lab methods, to meet international food safety standards across its products.

NQAC Contaminants Expert Ms Wee Siew Moi spoke on the centre’s risk assessment efforts to align with Codex Alimentarius standards, and work toward harmonising Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) standards. Public-private collaboration in the area of lab capacity-building, she said, can be fostered in various ways: knowledge-sharing and conducive dialogue platforms, including industry’s sharing of new and innovative lab methods with government authorities.

    Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) food safety scientists learn about Nestlé's quality assurance testing methods at the Nestlé Quality Assurance Centre (NQAC) in Singapore.

Participants also heard from guest speakers from Waters Corporation, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), who provided a comprehensive view of how fit-for-purpose food safety testing methods must support policy and regulation in order to improve public health and nutrition.

Mr Sridhar Dharmapuri, Senior Food Safety and Nutrition Officer at the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand, spoke on how analytical detectors must be fit-for-purpose to gather scientific data. Providing a case study of food residue monitoring in Bangladesh, he emphasised these points, among others, to deliver food safety: the need to improve hygienic practices for food handlers and actors across the value chain, developing appropriate storage facilities, increasing the number of inspections of food facilities, and implementing National Residue Monitoring Plans.

    Mr Sridhar Dharmapuri, Senior Food Safety and Nutrition Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, speaks with Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) food safety scientists.

AVA’s Dr Ch’ng Ai Lee, provided an overview of Singapore’s food regulatory and food safety control systems, and explained AVA’s risk-based approach to ensure food safety across the country. She highlighted that food safety is not just the government’s responsibility, but a shared one among stakeholders, sharing about AVA’s industry partnerships, consumer education campaigns, and incentives and rewards offered to retailers and farmers.

In similar support of multi-stakeholder partnership, Dr Paul Young, Senior Director, Government Affairs, Waters Corporation, explained how food safety and food security are very much linked. Food regulatory authorities, he said, should not think of themselves as “policemen”, but as partners working with other sectors toward ensuring food safety for economic development, and greater public health and wellbeing. As such, he added, all parties must look to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guidance in efforts to drive food safety.

    Dr Ch'ng Ai Lee, from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), shares about the Singapore government's efforts to drive food safety across the country.

The latter phases of this capacity-building programme will take place in the first half of next year. Phase Two focuses on a Train the Trainer concept, wherein the 14 scientists will attend training by IFSTL, and will also be taught how to teach the methods to others. Similar to Phase One, a programme of Measurement and Evaluation will be incorporated in the train-the-trainer session, in which immediate knowledge transfer will be assessed through a factual test done at the onset and at the end of the training week.

Subsequent to Phase Two, the new trainers will be able to deliver the training to larger groups of analysts from their own laboratories in their respective GMS countries. Pilot in-country training programmes are set to follow.

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