Food safety has been receiving significant worldwide attention due to the increasing number of foodborne illnesses occurring every year. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that 550 million people (7.9 percent of the world population) suffer from foodborne diseases every year, a staggering 230,000 of which are fatal.
The sad reality is that foodborne diseases affect vulnerable populations harder than other groups. According to WHO, infections caused by contaminated food have a much higher impact on those with poor or fragile health status and can easily lead to serious illness and death. For infants, pregnant women, the sick and the elderly, the consequences of foodborne diseases are usually more severe and may be deadly.
Diarrheal diseases alone kill an estimated 1.5 million children annually— most of whom are from very poor countries. These children, more often than not, are only provided two choices: to consume contaminated food or drinking water, or die from starvation.
This is precisely the scenario in the Lower Mekong Region (LMR), where the consequences of unsafe food are disastrous. While developed countries can afford to impose stricter food safety regulations and provide better access to health care facilities, developing nations—such as the LMR countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV)—are constrained by the lack of food supply, scarcity of supporting infrastructure, and the absence of effective food safety policies.
The food safety challenge in CLMV has become even more complex in the context of the emerging ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC supports easier and faster trade of goods among ASEAN countries, encouraging globalization in trade, thereby making the food chain longer and complicating foodborne disease investigation and product recall in case of outbreaks. The dilemma, therefore, is how to make trading between countries more efficient and less rigid, while at the same time imposing strict quality controls.
Shifting the Spotlight to Food Safety
At first glance it would seem that food safety is a major concern solely for scientists and medical practitioners, but going deeper into the issue shows that food safety is in fact a multi-sectoral concern. Food contamination can cause adverse effects beyond direct public health consequences—it undermines the exports of goods, tourism, the livelihoods of food handlers, and economic development in general, especially in developing countries.
The world has become increasingly aware of the consequences of unsafe food, but at the same time the need to ensure food safety is not as pressing as before. The attention of many health experts, food researchers, and even development agencies has begun shifting from solely promoting food security (i.e., ensuring that everyone has enough food to eat) to improving food safety (i.e., ensuring that food does not cause any harm to its consumers).
Mekong Institute (MI), an intergovernmental organization mandated to provide integrated human resource development initiatives in the Greater Sub-region and the New Zealand Aid Programme (NZAP), a funding agency offering support to developing countries, are among the many organizations that aim to spotlight the issue of food safety in CLMV.
Food Safety Project in CLMV
Food safety and post-harvest training courses were delivered by MI from 2012 to 2015 under the auspices of NZAP. The food safety courses were based around Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) and targeted mid-level CLMV government offcials and private sector participants.
However, lessons from agricultural projects and studies in CLMV have shown that GAP systems have not proven to be effective in food value chains and do not contribute to improve food safety. Consumers lack confidence in GAP certification, while farmers have not implemented GAP systems due to their complexity and compliance requirements. A major weakness in the GAP-led approach is that there have been no other significant complementary safe food measures along the value chain in the CLMV countries to date.
To address this gap, MI and NZAP jointly implemented the Food Safety Project (FSP), an 18-month initiative which aims to train government officials in CLMV on the essentials of food safety and regulatory standards throughout various value chains, with particular emphasis on fresh produce.
Ms. Maria Theresa S. Medialdia, Director of the Agricultural Development and Commercialization (ADC) Department and Project Leader of the FSP, has been directing the project team to align its proposed activities with the overall goal of the project. “Within the project, important aspects that need to be considered include the connection of CLMV regulations to select agri-food value chains to capture higher value market opportunities, the engagement of private sector to strengthen market access, and the role of CLMV officials in applying and sharing knowledge and skills in market-focused food safety regulation development and implementation.”
While regional in scope, the project also acknowledges the country-specific concerns of each CLMV country. As such, outreach activities will be initiated under the FSP, allowing more freedom for the project to explore ways to work with each country in a more localized manner.
“The rationale of the outreach activity is to enable the project to address concerns that are, say, only happening in Cambodia. While the training programs are set in a regional context, the outreach activities, on the other hand, serve to extend these programs in a local setting tailor-ft to the needs of each particular country.”
Finally, a key feature of the project design is the use of New Zealand food safety expertise to train and advise CLMV officials on improving food regulations in select value chains. New Zealand’s safe food expertise was considered to be the most appropriate in up-scaling existing regulations to facilitate trade to more profitable markets in the targeted countries.
All these guiding principles are being realized in the hope that the project can produce genuine and visible impacts on the food safety landscape in the region.
Providing Safe Food for All
Judging from its current progress, the MI FSP team is on track to meet its objectives. Two months ago, the MI FSP team has finished conducting its Training Needs Assessment (TNA) in each CLMV country, together with two food safety experts from New Zealand. The TNA was conducted from August 8th to the 25th, where country-specific needs were identified directly with relevant government officials and private sector actors.
Following this, the “Regional Consultation Workshop on Promoting Food safety in CLMV” was held. Nineteen officials from partner ministries in CLMV were invited to share local experiences with food safety regulation in their respective countries. During the workshop, best practices, challenges, and possible areas of collaboration in securing food safety in the region were identified by the participants and strategic plans of action per country were also developed.
The TNA report and consultation workshop painted a clear picture of how the project should run in the remaining months of its implementation. However, the challenge, still, is how to address all the diverse country concerns to produce the greatest impact, given the limited time frame.
“The pressure really is to produce impact quickly. Given the trust the government officials and other related food safety stakeholders placed in MI, we could not let them down. This is why the ADC, as the department responsible for this project, is giving its best shot to truly address concerns that are highly significant and crucial in each country—not just needs that we think are important and are easy to address.”
But amidst all the challenges, MI remains positive in its vision for the region. “The vision really is for everyone, men and women of all ages, whether rich or poor have access to safe food; that safe food, in the future, is not anymore a luxury, but a right everyone should enjoy,” Ms. Medialdia said.