The harmonization of food industry standards amongst ASEAN countries has been on the agenda for many years, but has seen limited results thus far. Interest in this area was reignited last year, particularly in the food safety arena, and FoodNavigator-Asia spoke to two experts to find out more.
According to Food Industry Asia Policy Director Steven Bartholomeusz, the harmonisation will be taken on by several working groups under different ministerial sectors, and one of the most significant updates from these in the last year was on food safety and hygiene.
Examples of these working groups include the ASEAN Expert Group on Food Safety (AEGFS), the ASEAN Consultative Committee on Standards and Quality (ACCSQ), and the ASEAN Consultative Committee on Standards and Quality Prepared Foodstuff Product Working Group (ACCSQ PFPWG).
“In April 2018, the ASEAN Sectoral Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) for Inspection and Certification Systems on Food Hygiene for Prepared Foodstuff Products was signed by all ten ASEAN member states,” said Bartholomeusz.
“The sectoral MRA seeks to enable the mutual recognition of inspection and certification systems on food hygiene with regard to the production, import and export of prepared foodstuff products (which fall under the Harmonised System HS code 16-22) in order to facilitate trade in ASEAN and protect the health of consumers.
“[All] member states are required to participate in this sectoral MRA. A member state which is not ready to fully implement this sectoral MRA may withhold from participating in this sectoral MRA. However, the withholding period shall not exceed five years after the sectoral MRA enters into force.”
Assistant Professor Anadi Nitithamyong, Deputy Director for Education and Special Affairs at the Mahidol University Institute of Nutrition added there were four main activities within the ASEAN food standards harmonization being led by the respective assigned countries.
“These are: Achieving transparency of regulatory regime (Thailand), Specifying area for Mutual Recognition Agreement (Indonesia), Enhancing the technical infrastructure (Philippines) and Strengthening of food safety standards (Malaysia).
“The key essence is on food safety, [although] other issues related to food trade are also touched [upon].”
Other areas of harmonisation
Bartholomeusz added that a food industry survey has identified nutrition labelling and halal certification as top technical barriers in trade, and as such as key challenges to be addressed.
“In August 2018, the Ministry of Health Malaysia announced that the ACCSQ PFPWG will begin to look into the area of nutrition labelling harmonization,” he said.
“The food sector can look forward to the harmonisation efforts on nutrition labelling under ACCSQ PFPWG to lower the trade barriers that are faced by the food sector, especially the small and medium enterprises (SMEs).”
As for halal certification, efforts are ongoing by the ASEAN Working Group on Halal Food (AWGHF) to standardise halal recognition amongst member countries.
“The AWGHF is currently working on the development of the General Guidelines on Halal Food as one of the building blocks to enable greater recognition among ASEAN member states,” said Bartholomeuz.
“In the Plan of Action for the ASEAN Cooperation in Halal Food, the harmonisation of accreditation, inspection and certification to enable the recognition of equivalence is identified as one of the action programme.”
However, Prof Nitithamyong voiced that despite all these, there are not yet any concrete regulations that are really being followed by the ASEAN region as a whole.
“As far as I know there have not been any widely practiced integrated ASEAN regulations,” she said.
“[So far, it is] policies and as well as a Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) on prepared foodstuff designed to enable Member States to accept food control inspections and certifications system in order to remove technical barrier to trade.”
Some insight into the various concepts and policies
One of the major policies mentioned in relation to ASEAN standards was the ASEAN Food Safety Policy, which was described as an overarching policy to provide a ‘common basis’ across ASEAN Ministerial Bodies and their subsidiaries to create an ‘integrated market for food’.
It was adopted in 2015 by the various Ministerial Bodies in charge of health, agriculture and trade, and is partially supported by the ASEAN Risk Assessment Centre in Malaysia as well as other country-level centresin the region.
“The ASEAN Risk Assessment Centre makes sure that all food safety related actions are based on an internationally recognised procedure of risk assessment,” added Prof Nitithamyong.
Bartholomeusz also described the role of the ASEAN Economic Community concept, which sets the vision for ASEAN to ‘be a single market’. This was established in 2015, and is currently follows closely with the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025.
“The next phase would be crucial as ASEAN works together to address the actions outlined in the new blueprint, in particular to address non-tariff measures (NTMs),” he said.
“The Guidelines for the Implementation of ASEAN Commitments on Non-Tariff Measures on Goods was recently finalised and it aims to improve the transparency and management of NTMs in ASEAN and minimise the trade-distortive effects of NTMs while allowing ASEAN member states to pursue legitimate policy objectives.”
As for whether or not harmonization efforts will move forward significantly in 2019, neither the food industry nor academia appear to be very optimistic about any big developments taking place.
“2019 will continue to see the global trade paradox, added with more complexity is the China-US relationship forward,” said Bartholomeusz.
“However, this could also be an opportunity for ASEAN as more companies may move their operation into this region. ASEAN member states need to work together as a whole in order to seize the global market.
He also described a wide public-private sector perception gap, and how better communication is required to move things along more efficiently.
“A  Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Advisory Council (ABAC) study showed that 87% of businesses in ASEAN believe compliance costs in the agri-food sector are increasing, while 50% of government respondents believe [these are] decreasing,” he said.
“This shows a big gap in the perception between public and private sectors and as such, we need a better communication between the public and private sectors.
“Beyond that, there are trade issues that involve different government sectors. In the process of harmonisation, there needs to a platform that gathers different government sectors to address challenges related to NTMs more effectively.
“The process of harmonisation could be long. However, there are ways to speed up the process, through a closer collaboration and interaction between ASEAN, government agencies and industry members.”
Prof Nitithamyong concurred that the process is likely to be a lengthy one, saying that: “I do not foresee any significant change in 2019. The harmonisation process has a long way to go. Certain minor agreements can be achieved, however.
“Key challenges [I foresee] include strong commitment and national policies from Member States, and their realisation of the importance of harmonised regulations to clear up [technical barriers] to trade while ensuring the safety and benefit towards the consumers.
“The disparity in regulations across borders will continue to affect the industry. They will have to become more involved, establish a strong commitment and sustain their engagement with ASEAN over the long term.”
That said, both experts agreed that this harmonization is crucial for the ASEAN F&B industry.
“A more harmonised approach in the regulatory framework will help businesses gain access to markets in the region, as well as the global market more easily. In the long run, harmonisation will lead to an enabling and sustainable environment for businesses,” said Bartholomeusz.
Prof Nitithamyong added that: “Harmonisation [will also] reduce overall complexity and associated costs as well as create a level playing field for all stakeholders.”
“Regulatory harmonisation is truly a tedious, difficult and painstaking process. Nevertheless, one has to be optimistic and put on your best effort to overcome this challenge.”