Speaking at the ASEAN Food and Beverage Conference panel discussion at FI Asia, the experts hailed from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
The session was led by Dr-Ing Azis Boing Sitanggang from Bogor Agricultural University, Indonesia.
Processing agricultural crops to maximise value
The ASEAN region is known to be rich in agricultural crops and resources, many of which are ‘packaged and sold wholesale’, according to Dr Sitanggang. Discussion centered around the use of technological processing solutions to increase the value of these crops.
Malaysia and Vietnam focused on specific commodities, which were palm oil and rice respectively.
Dr Koh Yew Ming, President of the Malaysian Institute of Food Technology (MIFT) said: “In Malaysia, palm oil is one of our most valuable commodities, and a lot of research and development has gone into it, be it for phytonutrients like tocotrienol or other aspects.
“We now can convert it into forms suitable for beverages, or to aid digestion.”
Ly Nguyen Binh, Vice President of the Vietnam Association of Food Science and Technology (VAFoST), said: “In Vietnam, our main issue when it comes to rice is overproduction.”
“As such, the strategy for our rice is to both increase dollar value by reducing production volume, as well as to increase the rice quality via biochemical fertilisers and new cultivars.”
Philippines instead shone the spotlight on government efforts in this area.
“In an industry dominated by SMEs, the Department of Science and Technology funds a good deal of research into agricultural products,” said Dr Lotis Francisco, President of the Philippine Association of Food Technologists.
“Food Innovation Centres have been established in different regions in the country, based on the unique crops that dominate the region. As local producers cannot afford most new technology, a lot of effort is centred around improving traditional processing technologies like drying.”
Thailand’s Asst Professor Dr Anadi Nitithamyong, President of the Food Science and Technology Association of Thailand (FoSTAT) added that similar efforts were underway in Thailand. For example, Food Innopolis is a global food innovation hub that is government-backed.
“Thailand has a very big food industry, also with many SMEs. We want to be a tech-driven economy, so recently there has been a lot of focus on R&D and especially innovation,” she said.
The rise of start-ups
The panel also looked at the worrying frequency with which start-ups in each country ‘rise and fall’, and strategies to help these companies languish.
“Start-up is the word in Thailand,” said Prof Nitithamyong.
“Both the private and public sectors are very supportive of start-ups, from trainings and boot-camps to soft loans.
“That said, what is still lacking is proper visualisation of the lessons learned from past successes, and especially failures. They need to be taught from past experiences, especially on how to deal with regulators.”
Dr Koh added that a proper look at the sustainability of raw ingredients is also lacking.
“Companies develop new products from raw ingredients, so strategies need to be developed to ensure [their] sustainability in the long term so that the businesses can also be sustained, instead of continuously giving grants to execute multiple short-term projects,” he said.
Competing with the rest of the world
Although it was unanimously agreed that ASEAN holds a clear advantage in terms of agricultural richness and resources, the panelists also felt that in order to be truly competitive at a global level, more still needs to be done.
“What is important is for each of us to find our uniqueness, such that we do not overlap or compete internally,” said Prof Nitithamyong.
“In terms of competing at a global level, we also hold an advantage, because we know [Western countries] want exotic stuff, new things, new flavours and we can provide these.
“At the same time, [products need to] have an increased emphasis on sustainability and eco-friendliness because this is the culture there.”
Ly concurred with this, saying that: “Although our exports are on top, the quality of our exports is not yet so high. We need to think about how to export products to high-end markets.
“To do this, [we need to follow trends] like making products green, healthy, and so on.”
Adding to this, Dr Koh said that companies need to pay an eye to and strategise towards natural, clean label, healthy F&B requirements.
“This is where R&D plays an important role, to make ingredients safer, more convenient and with higher nutritional value.”
Food safety and regulations
The harmonisation of food safety policies has long been an area of concern in the ASEAN region, but so far unifying efforts have yet to see fruition.
“Efforts to harmonise food safety regulations within the ASEAN region are already in place, but these have not really been implemented,” said Dr Sitanggang.
Dr Sitanggang was referring to the establishment of the ASEAN Risk Assessment Centre for Food Safety (ARAC), formally launched in 2016 in Putrajaya, Malaysia.
The agreement was initially that all food safety regulations in ASEAN would be based on risk assessment, working towards harmonisation within the region.
“Unfortunately, the contents [of regulations] are still up to each country, so harmonisation is still not visible,” said Prof Nitithamyong.
“It is a very painstaking, very slow endeavour, but hopefully one day we will get there.”