Greater Mekong Subregion: Becoming a Hub for Safe and Environment-Friendly Food

Edgar Valenzuela
Dr. Lourdes S. Adriano

Salmonella strikes again. (  In early December 2017, a French company, Lactalis, recalled milk formula, which affected 26 French infants due to salmonella contamination. The milk formula is marketed under different brands called, “Milumel, Celia and Picot” and the contaminated product was also exported to China and other countries i.e. Bangladesh, Britain, Greece, Pakistan, and Sudan.  This brings to mind the 2008 melamine baby milk food scandal in China where six children died and hundreds of thousands fell ill. A more recent food safety incident was the discovery in July 2017 of a controlled insecticide, “Filpronil”, used by a Dutch poultry farm which contaminated minimum estimated 700,000 eggs in the EU market. 

A 2015 WHO study by Havelaar et al estimated that 150 million cases of foodborne illness occur in Southeast Asia each year. The number of cases of foodborne illness in the GMS has not been adequately estimated but is undoubtedly in the tens of millions per year. Without accounting for underreporting, which most likely exceeds 25-fold, the Ministry of Public Health in Thailand reported over 47,000 cases of foodborne disease in the first half of 2016.

Food poisoning afflicts both the developed and developing world. Food safety is a global concern that affects everyone—including consumers, food suppliers and governments. Foodborne outbreaks such as the examples above are the tip of the iceberg and should constantly remind producers, food processors, wholesalers and retailers of food, food logistics providers, and consumers to be continuously vigilant when food safety is concerned.

Private sector should be at the helm
There has to be stronger realization that food safety is primarily a responsibility of the private sector, meaning all those involved in food value chains. Producers bear the first line of responsibility followed by wholesalers and retailers, particularly in packaging and marketing of products.  A recent survey of food industry professionals conducted by FoodQualityNews found that the majority of survey respondents ranked regulation, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and foodborne outbreaks, as their top three content areas of interest.

Large, medium and small enterprises, and organized producers’ groups agree that developing a food safety culture is important and continues to be widely recognized within the global food quality sector.  Eighty three percent (83%) of the FoodQualityNews survey respondents affirmed that a food safety culture is prevalent in their businesses. Organized consumer groups also have food safety and food quality as foremost issues in their advocacy.

But a food safety culture is not the norm among the predominantly small- scale farmers and SMEs who dominate food production in Southeast Asia, and the GMS in particular.

The food chains are also becoming longer and more complex as these internationalize, thus are more prone to risks and challenges on ensuring safe food. A WHO study in 2015 estimated that foodborne illnesses cause 420,000 deaths world-wide per year, 175,000 of which occur in Southeast Asia and a significant number affected are children under 5 years old. There are other economic costs of unsafe food such as lost incomes of workers, health costs, and lost tourism.

But governments have a say
Thus, governments have major roles to play being the vanguards in preventing food safety failures and protecting consumers from foodborne disease outbreaks. Public health and food safety and quality assurance standards are regulated by the governments based on codes and laws agreed upon at international level.

As food value chains become multifaceted, so do the responses of governments. All GMS nations have developed standards for GAP, food safety, certification and accreditation, custom and quarantine procedures and surveillance systems. In countries like PRC and Thailand, as in most developed economies, new and stricter regulatory requirements on food traceability have emerged.

There will be need to balance the regulations so that these do not hamper the market and trade or cause unnecessary food waste especially of safe and environment friendly agriculture products. At the same time, governments have to ensure that the national objective of ensuring food security for all is one that also achieves access to safe, nutritious and quality food that is produced in a sustainable manner.

These balancing acts are a tall order for the GMS economies. The GMS countries have seen a significant rise in the number of its middle class and the size of their disposable incomes, as well as a more sophisticated working class where safe and environment-friendly agricultural products would be in high demand. But their growth levels are at different stages, and the tools available and accessible to them to ensure effective interlinks of food security, food safety, and nutritious and quality food for all populace, are also variable.

From 6 economies to 1 subregion
On 8 September 2017, the Agriculture Ministers of the Greater Mekong Subregion – Cambodia, Peoples’ Republic of China (Guangxi and Yunnan provinces), Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam -  endorsed the GMS Strategy for Promoting Safe and Environment-Friendly Value Chains and Siem Reap Action Plan 2018-2022.  With an eye toward the vision of the subregion being internationally recognized as a hub for safe and environment-friendly agriculture products (SEAP), the GMS Agriculture Ministers agreed to jointly implement a 5-year strategy that will focus on two thematic areas that will improve the visibility and marketability of SEAP of GMS economies, domestically and globally. These are: food safety and quality assurance, and development of climate-smart inclusive agriculture value chains.

There are numerous challenges that will need to be addressed to tackle these two-pronged thematic areas. These challenges include the: (i)  huge numbers of fragmented small-scale farmers and :small and medium enterprises; (ii)  varying food safety systems in place due to varying capabilities within the GMS; (iii) SPS and other non-tariff obstacles to trade; (iv) local environmental degradation and climate change; (v) inadequate value chain infrastructure for storage, transport, and marketing; (vi) asymmetry of information; (vii) uncoordinated agencies involved in food safety and value chain; and (viii) lack of institutional arrangements for linking public and private sector as well as local communities.

With the GMS Strategy, the two-fold thematic focus will be supported by four pillars, namely policies, infrastructure, knowledge and marketing.  A harmonized policy environment in the GMS is needed to ensure that standards and procedures will efficiently contribute to production trade and investment in SEAP value chains.  Value chain infrastructure for regional integration can be developed, such as SPS facilities, surveillance systems, livestock disease control areas, and cold chain logistics.  With ICT, dissemination and sharing of information is a continuing task and knowledge sharing through capacity-building will improve much needed training of personnel.  Strategic communication and marketing campaigns will enhance advocacy efforts for the GMS reputation as a SEAP supplier.

The vision of the GMS to become a leading global supplier of safe and environment-friendly agriculture products is achievable: a subregion with a sound agriculture economy and its people living productive and healthy lives with access to healthy and nutritious food when they need it and when they want it.

Political will has been demonstrated, and momentum in the GMS is growing to share proactively in contributing safe food for all.