By the end of this year member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be harmonised under one legal framework after ten years of planning.
The union between Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam will establish principles of free movement of goods and (professional) people.
The supplement sector was one of 12 key priorities of the single-market project with plans to harmonise safety standards, health claim substantiation and upper levels for vitamins and minerals and potentially other nutrients.
Speaking at the industry event Vitafoods in Geneva last week, Pushpanathan Sundram, managing director of EAS Strategic Advice’s Asia Pacific division, told us companies outside the ASEAN ten also stood to benefit.
40% ASEAN moves tax-free
The deal will set a tariff-free zone for all ten countries by 2018, allowing goods to move tax-free between member states. Under a ‘rules of origin’ arrangement, end products only in part sourced, processed or packaged in the area could also be eligible. Only 40% of this production process would have to take place in the ASEAN countries.
A growing middle class population means a growing appetite for supplements. Therefore products could be both produced and sold in the ASEAN region, as opposed to relying on exports. The ASEAN’s middle class population was currently about 80 million and forecasted to climb to 125 million by 2020 and 400 million by 2030.
According to the EAS, Malaysia is the most promising supplements market, despite others like Indonesia being bigger. Second would be Indonesia due to sheer population size, which accounts for more than 40% of the total ASEAN population of 625 million.
Next would be markets like Thailand and Vietnam.
Sundram said more developed countries with high supplement consumption like Singapore were also significant.
Asked if there was a danger big US and EU companies could exploit this system, Sundram said the ASEAN governments were “flexible” and open to anything that brought business to the area. EAS was now ‘spreading the word’ about the opportunity.
“That is a strategy some companies are already looking at.”
An EFSA of the East?
The exact details of the harmonised legal framework were yet to be released, however what was sure was that a cross-nation committee for implementation and a technical body for scientific evaluation of things like health claims would be established.
This wouldn’t be as ‘institutional’ as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but Sundram said this could evolve in the future.
“Eventually I think ASEAN is talking about setting up an EFSA outfit, not just for the food or nutritional products but overall for ASEAN. There is already a plan. In fact they are looking at it very seriously in terms of setting up a body, an institution, which would focus on the science-based evaluation.”
He said for this the ASEAN had looked to Europe for inspiration. He said the response to this from big global industry had been positive, with a desire to move away from traditional, cultural uses towards science-based evidence.
This could have an impact for the region's herbal sector. Any opposition was likely to come from local players, which had until now operated “quite freely”, he said.
These stricter standards were key for competition and harmonised regulation for easy flow of goods. Yet the scope of such bodies was yet to be confirmed.
The region has its own trade association - ASEAN Alliance of Health Supplement Associations (AAHSA) – made up of national associations from ASEAN member states except Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Created in 2006, AAHSA worked with ASEAN regulatory bodies on the new supplement framework.
ASEAN looking to EU, the world looking to ASEAN
The EU has some of the strictest food regulations in the world, meaning export from the EU to Asia had until now been easier than Asia to the EU.
In the past Asian countries had seen this as a kind of “non-tariff barrier” against them – essentially blocking access with tough safety assessments and data demands many ASEAN players couldn’t match up to. By mimicking the EU process and therefore bringing the two regions’ standards closer together, this could make access to the EU smoother.
Greater confidence in safety and production standards would also attract ASEAN-based production investment from foreign firms.