Khmer Times’ Sok Chan, recently spoke to Dr Watcharas Leelawath, executive director of Mekong Institute, on the harmonisation of food safety standards in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries.
KT: What steps have GMS countries taken to ensure food safety in the region?
Dr Watcharas: Actually, there has been a lot of work on the food safety. There is also a working group in Asean to harmonise food safety standards. As every country has different standards, there is a need for one body to harmonise them. The working group was set up some time back and meets once a year. Therefore, progress has been slow.
For me, the most important thing is the recognition of other standards. We can’t have a perfect common standard for food safety but we can recognise the existence of other standards in other neighbouring countries, and work around that.
KT: The GMS agricultural ministers met recently in Siem Reap to address the different food safety standards and build a sustainable agro-based value chain. What are your comments on that, since you also participated in the meeting?
Dr Watcharas: The meeting was initiated by the Asian Development Bank’s CASP – Core Agriculture Support Programme. The Mekong Institute is part of this working group to formulate a strategic plan under this project.
My impression of this meeting is positive. CASP works on harmonising standards on different issues affecting food safety. The Mekong Institute is responsible for training and knowledge sharing and we are organising a forum for that. We are also conducting studies in certain priority areas on food safety. Inter-governmental linkage in this programme is important and should also be strengthened.
KT: In Cambodia, food safety is a perennial problem. Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Studies shows that between 200 to 400 tonnes of vegetables are imported daily from neighbouring countries. A recent study found that 95 percent of consumers were concerned about the chemical levels in both Cambodian and imported vegetables. What is the Mekong Institute doing to improve food safety in Cambodia?
Dr Watcharas: Our mission is to foster connectivity in the region through knowledge dissemination and knowledge sharing. Our main work is to improve capacity and enhance the expertise of human resources in the region. For that reason, we have cooperated with the New Zealand Aid Programme. With help from the New Zealand government, we are designing courses on food safety. The courses include consumer awareness, risk analysis, pesticide management, and audit and inspection. We also organise training for these courses.
Food safety is important as a country opens up globally and for that reason building human capacity is important to address the issue.
Cambodia is an agricultural country and the majority of the workforce are farmers. They are small farmers, unlike Japan or Australia, and so we have to strengthen their capacity. That’s the work of the Mekong Institute, not only in Cambodia but also in all countries in the GMS.
KT: Do you find any challenges in Cambodia regarding food safety?
Dr Watcharas: The challenge in Cambodia is building capacity. There is lack of technical capacity, laboratory and testing facilities are limited, and the legal framework to address food safety is not well developed. There are also issues with public-private cooperation and inter-governmental coordination.
From the legal framework, the country’s food safety laws are out of date. There is an urgent need to update these laws. Also, Cambodia needs to address the issue of harmonisation of standards by recognising standards in neighbouring countries.
Technical capacity is a big problem in the region, not only in Cambodia. Due to the lack of laboratory facilities in the country to test food samples, our work at the Mekong Institute is to link Cambodian food producers with neighbouring countries that have these technical facilities.
KT: So what’s the solution to ensure food safety in the CLMV countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam? How can consumers be protected?
Dr Watcharas: We don’t have a common solution. We need to have a collective effort and that also needs inter-governmental cooperation. The Mekong Institute paves the way for capacity building and we also conduct research to support our capacity building efforts.
Another important aspect of our work is promoting policy dialogues with governments. This is important to ensure that governments hear the voices of all stakeholders. This is a way for problem solving and advocating for policy change at national levels.
KT: Do you have any recommendations?
Dr Watcharas: As I mentioned earlier, it is a collective effort. Mekong Institute’s work would not be complete without the cooperation of countries.
One thing we are pushing for is better inter-ministerial cooperation for policy change and improving technical capacity.