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Five tips to meet changing food safety challenges in Asia By Hanno Elbraechter, Head Business Unit Technology

Food examination in laboratory

As Asian consumers demand safe, high-quality food products, producers and exporters must trace, test and eliminate the risks from “farm to fork.” 

I still remember nine years ago, the infamous infant milk scandal that triggered alarm among consumers, policymakers and food producers across Asia. It highlighted the ease with which melamine could contaminate a basic food product relied upon by millions of people to feed their babies.

Transcending food safety, it became a critical public health issue, leading to a restructuring of China’s dairy industry.

Since then, much-needed improvements in food safety legislation and quality controls have been implemented in many Asian nations. However, the subsequent years have also witnessed a diversity of food safety scares in the region, ranging from bird flu to plasticized rice and expired meat products in burgers to neurotoxins in shellfish. 

As a result, Asian consumers are highly vigilant about the provenance and quality of the foods they consume. Ensuring the necessary testing protocols and safeguards are in place across the value chain presents challenges for food companies, especially as demand grows for healthy products and market competition intensifies.

Here are five key issues to consider:

Producing safe and sustainable food for half the world’s population is an immense task. Many countries in Asia have been slow to develop sufficient international standard laboratory testing facilities. The percentage of foods tested across Asia remains low, but investment is being channeled to improve both the volume and quality of food safety testing and the requisite knowledge and expertise.

Demographic and geographic complexities often overlap. Most South East Asian countries, for example, have high population densities and much of the arable land is already under cultivation. Urbanization combined with constructive expansion is resulting in air, soil and water pollution. Religious and cultural considerations, such as halal food certification, is a challenge in some nations.

The tropical climate must be considered when storing and transporting fresh food products and ingredients, while natural disasters can be a factor. The 2011 tsunami in Japan disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant sparking radiation fears across a vast area and resulting in international restrictions of Japanese seafood, meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable exports.

Identifying the key challenges for each business in each market is essential. For example, research in Asia by Fleishman Hillard revealed that the largest proportion of food scandals in 2016 involved the dairy industry, followed by confectionery and seafood – and the majority involved contamination or a product recall.

In Vietnam, where the use of pesticides and antimicrobials is high, a range of biological, chemical and physical hazards have been found in foodstuffs. In China – which recorded 500,000 food-related incidents in the first nine months of 2016 – the most serious issues range from false advertising to counterfeit ingredients and contaminated food products.

Sales and marketing also presents a challenge, particularly as Asia embraces e-commerce. Some countries, notably China, now require marketplace websites offering fresh food and beverage products to ensure that all food companies trading on their platforms are appropriately registered and licensed.

Throughout Asia, governments – often in partnership with global entities, such as the World Bank and World Health Organization – have drafted new food safety laws and regulatory frameworks. More stringent regulations are supported by tighter import controls and monitoring and enforcement procedures, both at provincial and national levels, to ensure food producers endangering public health are punished.

Despite the greater legal clarity regarding food safety, coordination between government departments and agencies can often be time-consuming and confusing. As is the abundance of national, regional and international standards relating to food processing, import and export, transport, packaging and labeling. For example, Vietnam’s 2011 Food Safety Law introduced 54 regulations on food products, ranging from microbiological, heavy metal and mycotoxin contamination to food additive specifications and food contact materials.

Food contamination or poisoning scares don’t just raise consumer concerns, they endanger public health. They also create damaging headlines and provoke disaffection across social media. The potential damage to a company or brand’s reputation and revenues can be irremediable.

Across Asia, stricter food laws and enforcement place the responsibility for food safety management directly on food and beverage companies. Producers and exporters must identify and eliminate risks throughout the entire food production chain – from farm to fork. In addition to import and export, transport, storage, packaging and labeling, food producers must carefully manage primary and secondary ingredient suppliers to ensure that raw materials are safe and high quality.

The diverse complexities of producing and exporting food and beverage products into Asian markets highlights the value of a partner that understands the shifting operational environments and legal frameworks from a local perspective.

Recently DKSH, the leading Market Expansion Services provider, partnered with Cambodia Import-Export Inspection to launch its first mobile food measuring and testing lab as part of ongoing efforts to combat illegal food production and raise consumer awareness of food safety issues. Creating halal solutions, which are crucial for food producers exporting into South East Asian nations with large Muslim populations is another area in which DKSH provides unique expertise.

Hanno Elbraechter

About the author

Hanno Elbraechter joined DKSH in September 2014 as Head Business Unit Technology across 18 countries. He has been transforming sales and service organizations over the last 15 years across Asia to set new standards when it comes to systematic market development, industry specific market penetration and after-sales services combined with state-of-the-art CRM systems. After living for 13 years in China, he recently moved to Singapore with his wife and three kids.