According to the Asean Food and Beverage Alliance, around 38% of Asean’s population is employed by the agri-food business, but this contributes just 4.3% to the value of total exports, and 2.5% to intra-regional trade.
To illustrate their point, the group has published a white paper ahead of the Senior Economic Officials Meeting in Myanmar that highlights five key areas where harmonisation would greatly enhance overall food trade for the benefit of businesses and consumers in the trade bloc’s 10 member states.
These include points on nutrition labelling, pre-market registration, import and export certification, food ingredients and additives authorisation and contamination limits.
“The value of Asean agri-food exports has grown steadily since 2008, rising from US$38.2bn to US$53.25 billion in 2011, but there remains significant untapped potential,” said Pushpanathan Sundram, principal advisor to AFBA and former deputy-secretary general of Asean.
“With rising populations, an emerging middle class and a growing industry, we could greatly increase both intra- and extra-regional trade and exports.”
To do this, Asean needs to work towards a “mutually acceptable set of food standards to encourage a single market approach to the food industry,” said Wai Phyo, vice-president of the Myanmar Food Processors and Exporters Association.
Even though member states have made progress in developing guidelines for food hygiene, labelling for pre-packaged goods and food control systems, Wai cautioned that there is still much more for them to achieve in tandem with the industry.
“One of the greatest impediments to trade today is differing food standards across Asean that act as a technical barrier to the free-flow of food products,” he said.
“The food industry is committed to supporting this process with the Asean secretariat and other Asean task forces to build on their work.”
Challenges of harmonisation
While the AFBA white paper acknowledges the challenges of achieving full harmonised food standards by 2015, it recommends member states to consider the same mutual recognition agreements that are commonly used in sectors like electronics, manufacturing and cosmetics.
These typically allow countries to recognise and accept each other’s standards, allowing products to be freely traded across the region.
For example, the labelling of products differs from country to country, including guidelines for standards on limits for minerals and differences between nutrition information panels.
By standardising one Asean format or recognising Asean member state formats in the region, companies can export products quickly and with ease, the paper said.
Also, some countries require pre-market registration, rather than post-market notification, for a product, which requires all product information and packaging to be submitted prior to it being approved for sale.
This could be overcome by a single-market registration that is recognised across Asean, the AFBA stressed.
The group also called on senior economic officers to ease greater public-private collaboration and enhance cooperation between nations’ various committees and technical working groups.