Watcharas Leelawath, executive director of the Mekong Institute, sits down with Khmer Times’ Chea Vannak to give us insight into the food safety situation in the Greater Mekong Subregion.
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KT: Can you tell us about Mekong Institute’s programme for promoting food safety in CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam)?
Mr Leelawath: Mekong Institute is currently running a food safety project in its second phase called Prosafe (Promoting Safe Food for Everyone). It is a 5-year initiative providing training and support services to the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, particularly for agricultural and food safety officials, as well as various private sector actors.
It aims to develop their food safety knowledge and expertise and assist them in preparing and implementing appropriate food safety regulations and standards for select value chains and market outlets both inside and outside the country.
KT: How does CLMV benefit from the programme?
Mr Leelawath: Through the programme, we provide a series of food safety trainings to government agencies, academic and research institutions, and agro-processing SMEs. We address food safety issues along the value chain on a farm-to-table approach.
We also provide post-training outreach support and localised training, as well as develop and improve food safety guidelines and regulations, develop food safety promotional materials, and support SMEs in implementing food safety and quality management systems based on national and international standards.
KT: The programme is currently in its third year. What progress have you seen when it comes to food safety awareness in these countries?
Mr Leelawath: Each country has increased its efforts to promote food safety. For example, Cambodia is now drafting a national food safety policy and updating its food safety law.
Moreover, each country is actively participating in regional and international food safety networks, including Asean, the International Food Safety Authorities Network (Infosan), and the Codex Alimentarius, which was established by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Food safety awareness has been promoted via various media platforms and our consumers are now aware of food safety issues and they are putting pressure on producers to follow national and internal food standards.
KT: Cambodia has the Cam-GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards, which were issued in 2010. However, the application of these standards among industry players is still limited. What can be done to encourage farmers to seek out GAP certifications and increase awareness of these standards?
Mr Leelawath: The Cam-GAP standards for fresh fruits and vegetables, which is aligned with the Asean-GAP, are ready for farm certification. The key challenge, however, is that farmers have no incentives to adopt these standards since there is no premium price for GAP produce. Most importantly, farmers have limited capacity to follow a long list of GAP-related requirements.
Since most Cambodian farmers are smallholder farmers, the government should work harder to organise them into producer groups and farmer cooperatives and strengthen their capacity. Contract farming schemes should be promoted to support farmer groups and link their products to markets with better prices.
Unsafe vegetables have long been a public concern in Cambodia and the country still has limited capacity to produce safe vegetables for domestic consumption. Another key intervention is to work with the private sector or with commercial farms to promote GAP in Cambodia since they have enough resources to implement this.
KT: Promoting food safety and the farm-to-table approach is not easy. Do you have any recommendations for industry players or the government?
Mr Leelawath: Food safety is a shared responsibility requiring a multi-disciplinary approach. It requires the active participation and collaboration of several actors along the food chain, from the primary producer to the consumer. All key government agencies – including those dealing with agriculture, industry, trade, and health – need to collaborate and engage with the private sector and civil society, including consumer groups.
An effective approach with a national food safety control system in place is needed to ensure food is safe from farm to fork. A national food safety coordinating body or inter-ministerial committee with clear roles and responsibilities should be formed.
KT: Looking at the whole region, how would you categorise food safety standards?
Mr Leelawath: Asean has a food safety policy and now they are working on the harmonisation of food safety standards to facilitate regional trade and protect human health in alignment with Codex standards.
As Asean establishes an integrated market for food, the Asean food safety policy will provide the basis for coordination and for establishing a common purpose across the relevant Asean ministerial meetings and Asean bodies established by the ministers.
The agreed principles of the Asean Food Safety Policy serve as guidance and facilitate the development of a sustainable and robust food safety regulatory framework for the region.