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Challenges and constraints to food and agricultural trade in the NE region

Agricultural trade in the region is constrained by poor production structures and inability to meet the foreign demand for certain qualities and in certain seasons. In addition, the agricultural production systems are similar and therefore the countries in the region tend to import the same commodities and export the same commodities as well.

There is a considerable lack of co-ordination of economic policies in the countries of the region, a matter which contributes significantly to the unsatisfactory performance of agriculture trade in the region. In spite of the numerous trade agreements between the Arab countries the principles used for the calculation of tariff rates, and hence the tariff rates themselves, are widely different from one country to another.

According to the agreements between the Arab countries regarding trade exchange facilities and regulation of transit trade, most primary agricultural commodities are exempted from tariffs and the tariff rates are subject to reduction by 50% for processed agricultural products such as butter, cheese, sugar, apricot syrup and dried onion and garlic. However, the full tariff rates are currently applied to most countries and complicated administrative procedures are usually asked for in order to provide some kind of protection to certain commodities. In general, most countries in the region are not seriously interested in following up the agreements due to fear of dumping possibilities, loss of custom duty revenue, and jeopardy of economic development programs.

Most countries of the NE region do not produce sufficient amounts of their total food demand and hence depend heavily on importation. Ability to import is, therefore, an essential component of sustainable food security in the region. Most countries, however, especially the non-oil exporting countries are facing difficulties in developing adequate foreign exchange earning to finance food imports. Such state of affairs can expose the countries to risky situations, both economically and politically.

Most countries in the region lack marketing systems that would enable the movement of goods to the international markets. This includes lack of transportation and shipping facilities suitable for overseas marketing, poor packing and packaging facilities, lack of information on foreign markets, difficulties in the dissemination of information, and poor post harvest technologies. Large crop losses usually result from this situation.

Agriculture in the region operates under severe limitations of water resources and crop yields, in the absence of irrigation, are fairly low. Increasing the cultivable land, application of modern methods of irrigation to save on water and usage of genetically modified high crop yield seeds are big challenges for increasing crop production.

The main external market for fruits and vegetables is the EU, the tariffs on which vary by product, season and country of origin, with higher tariffs being imposed during the periods when imports compete with domestic production.

With the importance of the agricultural sector in many of the Near East countries and the growing importance of the food processing sector in others, food trade represents an opportunity for them to generate resources for financing growth and development and to meet the growing demand for food. Most of the NE countries face un-favorable market access conditions in markets of greatest export interest to them. One of the very important underlying causes for this is the incapacity of the traded foods and food products to meet international standards in food safety and quality.

Food Safety and Food Trade

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of food safety crises that had drastic effects on food trade. The two major incidents that were highly publicized and which created a lot of concern among consumers were the Bovine Spongiform Encephelopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, primarily in British cattle (1996), and Dioxin in food stuffs produced in Belgium (1999). In both cases consumers and governments were worried about the health effects of consuming foods that could be contaminated with Dioxin, a carcinogenic agent, or meat and meat products coming from cattle suffering from mad cow disease in light of their relation to a new variant of Creuztfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans. This resulted in bans on meat products suspected of originating from BSE affected animals and the recall of many food products contaminated with dioxin with consequent disruptions in trade and huge economic losses. In addition to that, the 1990s have also been marked by new developments in food safety regulations and the formulation of more stringent standards for many hazards, old and new. This has been driven to a large extent by the increased scientific understanding of food-borne hazards and their human health consequences, and also by the increase in the volume of international trade in food products and hence the associated risk, as well as by the way consumers, especially in developed countries, obtain and prepare food. Besides, regulatory measures knew in the 1990s a major change in the way they were developed. They became based on the scientific assessment of risk of food related hazards, the management of risk at a socially acceptable level, and the communication of information about risk to the public, with such an approach being undertaken from farm to table as hazards can enter the food supply at any one of several points. All these changes have affected international food trade to an extent that food safety and its relation to trade occupied a very prominent position in many of the papers prepared for the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Doha in 2001.

In addition to the above, the World Trade Organisation agreements especially the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) Agreement have given food safety yet more importance in international food trade. For developing countries, which continue to rely on agricultural exports in order to obtain foreign exchange earnings, addressing food safety in the new environment of trade became even more important. For many of these countries, the existing and emerging measures to protect human health, although not trade measures per se, can impede trade in agricultural products. They can significantly affect the ability of some developing countries to access markets particularly in industrialized countries by increasing the costs of imports or prohibiting them entirely. Product standards (such as the maximum residue levels for pesticides) or process standards (such as the use of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points plans) may increase foreign producers' costs relative to domestic producers' costs or to other exporters' diminishing therefore their competitiveness even when they could comply with the food safety requirements of the importing country.

In the following example the effect of food contamination on the flow of trade will be illustrated.

Mycotoxins are produced by fungi, which are commonly known as mold. These toxins can develop during production, harvesting, or storage of grains, nuts, and other crops. Mycotoxins are among the most potent mutagenic and carcinogenic substances known. They pose chronic health risks: prolonged exposure through diet has been linked to cancer and kidney, liver, and immune-system diseases. Because mycotoxins occur more frequently under tropical conditions and diets in many developing countries are more heavily concentrated in crops susceptible to mycotoxins, these chronic health risks are particularly prevalent in developing countries. In addition, mycotoxins can be present in livestock feed, reducing productivity in meat and dairy production. If these toxins find their way from feed into milk or meat, they become a food safety hazard in these products too.

Among the mycotoxins, aflatoxins raise the most concern. Aflatoxin B1 is found widely and in greater concentrations than other naturally occurring forms of aflatoxin throughout the world in foods such as maize, peanuts and peanut products, cottonseed and its extractions, and, to some extent, chilies, peppers, and pistachio nuts. (IFPRI, 2003)

Besides the health effects of mycotoxins, contamination in agricultural commodities by these fungi has considerable economic implications. Losses from rejected shipments and lower prices for inferior quality can devastate developing country export markets (see case studies 1 and 2).

Case study 1: Iranian Pistachio Nuts

In September 1997, the European Commission temporarily prohibited imports of pistachios from Iran after the discovery of high levels of aflatoxin in various shipments of Iranian pistachios. The ban was lifted three months later after Brussels was satisfied that commitments given by the Iranian authorities to carry out scientific analyses of their pistachio nuts and provide exports with clear certificates removed danger for EU consumers.

Pistachios are Iran's largest foreign-currency earner after oil and carpets, with some 350,000 people working on pistachio farms or related operations.

Until 1998 about 80% of Japan's pistachio imports came from Iran. But in October of 1998 extremely high levels of aflatoxin were detected in three containers of pistachio nuts sold at a department store in Tokyo. A recall order was issued, and subsequent import inspections revealed a great many violations. Since that time, imports from Iran have fallen dramatically, and today most imports come from the United States.

In 2002, the British Food Standards Authority asked the European Commission to consider re-imposing the temporary suspension of imports of pistachios from Iran after a survey showed that all of the pistachio samples which contained over the accepted limits of aflatoxin B1 were imported from Iran.

Case Study 2: EU ban on Egyptian peanut imports

On May 28, 1999 the European Commission suspended the import of peanuts from Egypt due to the presence of aflatoxin in concentrations in excess of maximum levels specified in EU regulations.

Egypt is a major peanut exporting country and the European markets account for 68 percent of its peanut exports.

Peanuts are an important agricultural crop for Egypt grown mostly in the north of the country. Egypt has a large number of peanut producers, with many farming small fields of two and half feddans. Peanut cultivation covers 145,000 feddans.

This decision was repealed on 1 December 1999 and was replaced by another Decision, which imposed a requirement for certification to accompany every consignment and required systematic analysis of consignments and documentation by the importing member state. Under this system only 18 Egyptian exporters were allowed to ship to the EU.

In August 2003, the 1999 Decision was replaced by another Decision that required the competent authorities in EU Member States to undertake random sampling and analysis of 20% only of peanut consignments from Egypt for aflatoxin B1 and total aflatoxins. This improvement came as a result of the efforts that the Egyptian Government put in complying with the requirements of the EU.

The above two case studies show clearly that not meeting the safety standards of importing countries can cause great economic losses to exporting countries over many years, after which re-accessing the same market that became accustomed to the food products of competitors could prove to be very difficult. Therefore, it becomes evident that producing to standards is the key to export markets. In order to prove the validity of this hypothesis, researchers at the World Bank analyzed the situation econometrically. They found out that adopting a worldwide standard for aflatoxin B1 - the most potentially toxic of all aflatoxins-based on current international guidelines would lead to an increase in the cereal and nut trade by $6.1 billion from the 1998 levels among the countries they studied. They also estimated that total world exports would rise by $38.8 billion if an international standard (Codex) were adopted, compared to the current divergent national standards in place.

Compliance however with safety standards required by importing countries is a costly business to countries. The cost of achieving disease- and pest-free status required for Argentina to export meat, vegetables and fruit is estimated to have been $82.7million over the period 1991-96. The estimated cost of upgrading hygiene standards in slaughterhouses in Hungary over 1985-91 was $41.2 million.

In addition, in certain circumstances, SPS requirements are incompatible with prevailing systems of production and marketing in developing countries. As a consequence, structural and organizational change may be required in order to comply, and the associated costs can act to restrict trade in a similar manner to tariffs.

Besides it takes years, a lot of resources, and coordination among different stakeholders before a country could achieve compliance. In the above case study on aflatoxins in Egyptian peanuts, the Government has been actively trying since 2000 to reduce the content of aflatoxins in peanuts. The following inlay shows some of the steps taken by the Egyptian Government in order to comply.

Steps taken by Egypt to comply with EU mycotoxin standards in peanuts

The Egyptian Ministries of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MALR) and Ministry of Foreign Trade (MOFT) issued Ministerial Decree No. 2/2000, which covers all stages of production, processing, sampling and exporting of peanuts. The main provisions of the decree were:

Article (1): exported peanuts must be produced, inspected and prepared according to set
scientific procedures

Article (2) exporters who violate the rules will be suspended for 1 year

Article (3) publication and dissemination of requirements

The decree also established the legal limit for aflatoxin in peanuts in both the domestic and EU export markets. In the Egyptian domestic market the legal limit was 5 mg/kg aflatoxin B1 and 10 mg/kg total aflatoxin content. For the EU market, the legal limits were 2 mg/kg aflatoxin B1 and 4 mg/kg total aflatoxin content. In addition, the decree specified the sampling procedures that must be followed for export certification.

In September of 2001 the Food and Veterinary Office sent a mission to Egypt to assess Egypt's compliance with its certification system requirements. A number of recommendations on steps Egypt should take to improve the control system of foodstuffs intended for export to the EU were made. In response, the Egyptian authorities declared that they were taking actions to address the Mission's recommendation. But to achieve that there was a need to coordinate among a number of Egyptian agencies involved in the production and export of peanuts and aflatoxin control: MALR, The Central Administration for Plant Quarantine (CAPQ), The Agricultural Research Center (ARC), The Ministry of Foreign Trade (MOFT), and The Customs Service. Also a laboratory capable of testing for mycotoxins was necessary. Along side this; Egypt had technical assistance from international organizations in order to build human and physical capacities necessary for achieving compliance.

While in the peanuts case, Egypt has achieved a lot of progress in complying with EU safety requirements, the situation was different in the case of potatoes, which will be illustrated in case study 3.

Case study 3: Egyptian potato exports to the EU and disease-free areas

Starting from September 1998, the EC has been banning potato imports from Egypt because of contamination from potato brown rot, following an EU decision requiring imports to be derived from certified disease-free production areas. Before that date, Egyptian potato imports were treated under the regime "all products considered disease-free unless proven otherwise", but after that date the regime that applied to Egyptian potatoes was "imports are considered diseased unless proven to be disease-free". As a result Egypt prepared 133 dossiers for the recognition of pest-free areas. However, only 23 were taken into consideration by the EC Standing Plant Protection Committee and ultimately only five pest-free areas were approved, while additional documentation was requested for another 14 areas. According to the EC authorities, the very low score of approval of disease-free areas was due to the fact that the documentation prepared by Egypt was inadequate (e.g. maps were not readable, documentation was in Arabic), which was due to the lack of technical capabilities in the country to deal with this issue. The EC ban led to disrupting trade in a product which ranks third in Egypt for the generation of foreign exchange as only a handful of exporters had access to potatoes from disease-free areas mid of January 1999, a month into the peak season, while 41 exporters were not able to meet contractual obligations for deliveries in EU markets.

Even though Egypt felt that the EC measure was unjustified based on the fact that brown rot was endemic in the EC and that it had actually been introduced to Egypt because of infected seeds imported from the EC, this did not change the situation of disrupted trade for Egypt and consequent economic losses.

Countries in the region have sometimes the technical capacity and human resources to comply with safety regulations (Case study 2) of importing countries, but most frequently this is more difficult to achieve. How these countries perform in meeting SPS standards can be obtained from the records that developed countries keep on detained agro-food shipments. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in particular, keeps records in a databases on shipments that were detained following its border inspection. In these records they give information on each shipment detained, including the name/address of the exporter, the product and the reason for detention on a monthly basis. In reviewing the reasons for detention for the agro-food products from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, for the period of January to June 2001, it was found out that 27% of the shipments were rejected for reasons related to SPS (filth, microbiological contamination, low acid food, pesticide residues, and food additives) and 58% for food Labeling that could be either a TBT or and SPS measure depending on what it concerns.

In the above sections, we saw how food safety could have very serious effects on the economy of the Near East countries. It is evident from the examples that producing to standards is the way forward for securing a place in the international market.

In what follows, we will discuss the food safety situation in the region in light of the WTO agreements, in particular, the SPS.

Overview of the SPS and TBT agreements and their implication on food trade:

Of the 29 countries of the NE region, 15 are members of the WTO and 9 are observers as in April 2003. The accession to WTO is gaining ground and most of the remaining countries are seriously considering applying for membership.

Among the different agreements administered by the WTO, two have a significant impact on the practices and conditions of international food trade. These are the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

Agreement on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS)

The Sanitary and Phytosanitory (SPS) Agreement was promulgated in 1994 as part of the outcome of the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations. The SPS measures related to food safety are now popularly known as `SPS measures/standards'.

According to the Agreement, SPS measures include,

"All relevant laws, decrees, regulations, requirements and procedures including, inter alia, end product criteria; processes and product methods; testing, inspection, certification and approval procedures; quarantine treatments including relevant requirements associated with the transportation of animals and plants, or with the materials necessary for their survival during transport; provisions on relevant statistical methods, sampling procedures and methods of risk assessment; and packaging and labelling requirements directly related to food safety."

The SPS agreement has as its primary purpose the protection of human, animal and plant life and health through the implementation of sanitary and phytosanitary measures that are justifiably necessary and are not disguised technical barriers to trade. As such, the SPS agreement has specific provisions related to public health risks arising from additives, contaminants, toxins or disease-causing organisms in food, beverages or feedstuffs. The SPS Agreement specifically recognizes the food standards, guidelines and recommendations elaborated by Codex Alimentarius Commission as the benchmark for the quality and safety of food in international trade, and the reference in case of disputes. Measures taken by Member countries to control the quality and safety of food based on the internationally adopted food standards of the Codex Alimentarius Commission are presumed to meet the requirements of the SPS Agreement. The SPS Agreement also encourages Member countries to harmonize their sanitary and phytosanitary measures with international standards, guidelines and recommendations; to apply equivalence principles in food control program evaluation, and to establish and implement sanitary and phytosanitary measures in a transparent manner.

The SPS Agreement, however, does not oblige members to adopt the Codex standards but requires that food safety measures taken which impose a higher level of protection than that established internationally by the Codex be based on sound scientific evidence, and internationally acceptable risk assessment methods, and must be the least trade restrictive.

Other international organizations are also recognized in the SPS Agreement relating to the protection of animal and plant life and health. The International Office of Epizootics is recognized as the international standard setting body for all animal health and life protection measures governing live animals traded in international trade. The International Plant Protection Convention is recognized for standards that protect the life and health of live plants (phytosanitary measures) traded in international trade.

Agreement on technical barriers to trade (TBT)

The TBT Agreement applies to all aspects of food standards, which are not covered by the SPS Agreement. It seeks to ensure that technical regulations and standards for food, including packaging, marking and labeling requirements and, procedures for assessing conformity with technical regulations and standards, do not create unnecessary obstacles to international trade. TBT measures must be shown to have legitimate purpose, should be based on international standards, and be proportional to the desired purpose. In the framework of Codex, provisions such as quality and composition requirements, labeling, nutrition, and methods of analysis are relevant to the TBT Agreement.

Being members of WTO, countries accept the responsibility of the terms of Membership. This means that the measures imposed in protecting public health against hazards associated with food from imported sources must not be trade restrictive, arbitrary, or disguised technical barriers to trade. Measures are also to be scientifically justified using risk assessments methods acceptable at the international level. Measures adopted on the basis of internationally elaborated food standards; guidelines and recommendations are considered in compliance with the WTO Agreements. Import procedures are to be streamlined to eliminate unnecessary and burdensome requirements, which do not serve legitimate purposes.

Implication of SPS and TBT agreements on food trade for the countries in the NE region

In order to understand the implications of the WTO SPS and TBT agreements on food trade in the Near East region it is necessary to understand the nature and the way the food control systems work in the different countries. For a food control system to be adequate and effective, it should be based on: (a). comprehensive food legislation; (b) an effective inspection service; (c). a sufficient analytical service; and (d). proper service administration.

Such a food safety and quality control system should also have a dynamic potential of well-trained staff at all levels and a program for spreading knowledge, providing information and advice, and educating the consumer. Where food safety and quality control activities are performed by several sectors of the national authority, such activities should be coordinated through a suitable coordinating body. Countries with effective food control systems tend to face fewer problems in complying with the SPS Agreement than countries in which these systems are not fully developed.

In the Near East region, differences exist between the food control systems employed with few countries having modern systems based on risk analysis like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and most having overly fragmented or poorly developed or outdated systems. Some countries however have started a process of reforming their food control systems in order to meet the challenges of the new international trading environment (Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia).

In order to reform their national food control institutions and systems, most of the countries in the Near East need technical assistance. In many, resource and infrastructure constraints are very important that they limit their ability to comply with food safety requirements, and also their ability to demonstrate compliance. Access to appropriate scientific and technical expertise is a particularly acute problem for some and knowledge of SPS issues as well as the skills required to assess SPS measures applied by developed countries and to demonstrate the scientific justification for their own SPS requirements are rather poor, both within government and the food supply chain. Moreover, when disputes related to SPS measures occur, most of the countries in the region find out that they lack the technical capacity needed to assess (a) whether a food safety standard is based on sound scientific principles; (b) whether there is discrimination between treatment of domestic and foreign producers, and (c) whether the regulation in place is appropriate to mitigate against risk to public health and least trade distorting. The case of the ban of Egyptian potatoes from the EU market is a good example of the incapacity of Egypt to prepare a solid dossier responding to the three points mentioned above.

In matters of food legislation, the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement encourages the harmonization of food safety standards internationally because its overall goal is to ensure transparency and non-discrimination in how governments apply food safety, animal, and plant health regulations. By harmonizing standards, food trade flow will run smoother because there will less need for testing and certification, which normally act as obstacles to the flow of trade.

With the adoption of the WTO of the Codex Alimentarius as a reference in food safety and in resolving trade disputes, members are encouraged to harmonize their food laws and regulations with those of the Codex, which plays a central role in setting internationally acceptable standards. Even though a lot of progress has been achieved within the Codex Alimentarius Commission to reach consensus on key international food safety standards, national standards still proliferate making regulatory requirements and product standards substantially different across countries; therefore, giving grounds for trade disputes to rise.

The situation in the region regarding food legislation is that, in many of these countries, regulations are old; standards are adopted through the issuance of regulations and are not based on risk analysis. Many of the NE countries have as yet no comprehensive and self-contained food legislation, which would meet the present day requirements in this field. Provisions of direct or indirect significance govern food safety and quality control, which are usually introduced on an ad hoc basis to deal with specific problems as they arise. Some are embodied in various enactments dating back almost half a century. Few countries have started to up-date their food legislation by drafting and/or formulating a basic food law. Other countries have already drafted, with the technical assistance of FAO, a basic food law and a comprehensive set of food regulations based on the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission's work, and which satisfy the national needs.

With the exception of two cases, where a rather large but not comprehensive volume of national standards for the compositional characteristics of certain foodstuffs is available, the national food standards of most of the countries of the NE are limited and in many cases their implementation is voluntary. For example, no standards are available in any of these countries for traditional foods and snacks, which are now abundant in the local markets.

Food safety and quality control activities in such cases are mainly based on personal judgment of applying national, regional and/or international standards as reference.

This state of affairs had led to the anomalous situation where developed countries, which are in many instances main producers and/or exporters of food and/or chemicals, additives, pesticides and others, have up-dated and revised their food legislation, while NE countries, like many other developing countries, have remained with out-dated and inadequate food legislation and/or regulations. As a consequence "dumping" of inferior foods, which violate the laws of the producing countries, became unavoidable and presented a real challenge to some of the countries. Therefore, in order to develop an effective and adequate food safety and quality control service, the immediate action of a country should be to up-date and keep current its food laws and regulations. A fundamental requirement is that such food laws and regulations should never be taken over as enacted in any other country; they should be drafted in the light of the local conditions prevailing in the individual country, taking into consideration the interrelated concerns of other countries, especially those in the same region or those from or to which any considerable amounts of food imports/experts may flow. Comprehensive food legislation should govern the production, handling, processing and marketing of foods.

Efforts are underway in some countries to draft new food laws (Lebanon), and harmonize food standards with the Codex (Egypt). Jordan has already revised its food laws and harmonized its standards with the Codex (2000).

The fact that national standards are not harmonized with international standards in many countries makes exporters face higher costs of compliance when exporting agricultural and food products to developed countries. Whereas when national standards become harmonized with international standards exporters would have access to markets, which had also adopted international SPS standards. Also, in the absence of harmonization, countries need to demonstrate equivalency of their SPS requirements with those of developed countries.

However, harmonization of standards is not an easy task for many of the countries in the region because the current procedures through which international standards are established fail to take adequate account of their needs and special circumstances. This means that, the form and level of international standards may be inappropriate and/or unachievable for them. This is why it is important for the countries of the region to take a more effective role in forums where such standards are discussed, especially that food safety measures may have different implications in terms of the welfare effects in different countries depending on the differences in risk perceptions, available market information, the incidence of risk in production, and traditional methods of food processing and preparation. It is a fact however that participation of the countries of the region in the works of the international standards setting bodies like the Codex Alimentarius Commission has been very limited due to lack of scientific and technical resources for most topped with limited financial resources for others.

On the other hand, the extent and nature of existing SPS regulatory structures in the countries of the region affect their ability to comply with international standards. When national SPS measures exist, the food supply chain will be accustomed to operating in a regulated environment and will better appreciate the need to comply with international requirements. Furthermore, public authorities will find it relatively easy to implement conformity assessment procedures required by developed countries given that they have an existing enforcement structure. Countries that will find it most difficult to comply will be those with little existing domestic SPS legislation and/or weak systems of control.

Inspection, as an integral part of the regulatory structure, varies greatly from one country to another. In most countries all inspectors are public health inspectors with limited specific training in food inspection. On the contrary, most countries have qualified veterinarians performing meat inspection and control inside the abattoirs, however, once the carcasses leave the abattoir, inspection is then the responsibility of the filed inspectorial staff. The way these inspectors work is usually by drawing samples from food consignments or simply by collecting samples of suspected food from the points of entry to the country, food plants and/or local markets and send them to the relevant food control laboratories for examination and analysis. In many countries, inspectors are not provided with suitable and necessary tools to draw representative samples and perform simple examination on the spot for those cases, which do not need to be examined in the analytical laboratories. They are also not provided with a detailed and comprehensive manual to follow in their day-to-day work, although this would be an invaluable aid, especially to inspectors with limited training. The duties of the food inspector are limited to the "police type" action of discovering and seizing food consignments and/or transmitting evidence when a violation has occurred usually in the "end product", but not to the preventive role which he should play in bringing about voluntary compliance with regulations along the different stages of production for the sake of consumer protection. Besides in most countries, control operations are applied mainly on imported foods, whereas locally produced foods receive little attention in this regard.

Moreover, for any inspection service to be effective it should have access to efficient analytical services and testing facilities. Generally, routine testing is necessary to avoid any threat to the health or economy of the consumers or nations, and suspected violations can only be verified in the testing laboratory.

For an effective and adequate analytical service, requirements are multifold: buildings, equipment, staff, laboratory, guide for uniform analytical procedures and other reference services. In most countries, however, laboratory buildings are generally not suitable and/or inadequate for the purpose, and equipment is only suitable for simple routine analysis. With the exception of a few cases where one or more highly qualified analysts are available, staff and technicians are generally less well trained especially in sophisticated analysis. Technicians trained in the installation, maintenance and repair of modern analytical equipment are not available in many establishments, and maintenance and repair of modern analytical equipment are not available in many of the countries of the NE. Technical reference facilities in most food control laboratories are either poor or do not exist and procedures used are not well defined. In general, the standard of the analytical service in the NE countries varies widely. In most countries, facilities are only adequate for simple routine analysis and, in some, suitable facilities hardly exist and as a consequence the food control service, at least in certain aspects, is minimal.

Realizing the importance of the analytical service, most of the countries of the NE region are planning and/or taking action to establish new modern testing laboratories.

In addition to infrastructure and capacity of personnel, food control structures in these countries are not always in possession of or have access to the technical information they need to perform their duties properly. A regional network for sharing information was strongly recommended in a recent food safety meeting.

In the presence of comprehensive food legislation, and adequate inspection and analytical service, the success of a food control service in providing adequate and effective protection to the consumer as well as the import/export service is dependent on an overall proper administration, capable of overseeing, programming and directing the food control activities.

Food control administrative arrangements in most of the countries of the NE region are far from ideal. In most of the countries, the food inspection service is under one ministry, i.e. the Ministry of Health, or the Ministry of Municipalities. Few countries have this service under the supervision of more than one ministry, e.g. the Ministry of Health, Municipalities, Supply and Internal, external trade and/or Commerce and Industry.

Food inspection in many instances is combined with other duties, e.g. drug inspection, general public health inspection, inspection of frauds in commodities other than food, etc. Save a few exceptions, the administrative arrangements of the analytical service also vary widely, so that in some countries the testing laboratories are partially or totally under the administrative management of the food control service and, in some other countries, they are under the management of different governmental agencies - a state of affairs which causes confusion among enforcement officials so that sometimes invalidation of analytical results is unavoidable.

In addition, in most countries a national standards organization is responsible for formulating standards for all commodities (food and other products): a practice, which usually causes confusion and problems in enforcement. Therefore, a clear distinction should be made between the minimum standards necessary for the maintenance of public health which are obligatory under the food law, and other grading or quality standards that may be set to guide or improve industrial performance or import/export operations.

Where several ministries supervise food control activities, they are given secondary importance as compared to the primary duties and responsibilities of each ministry. As a consequence, overlapping of activities may exist with regard to certain areas of food control, and areas of priority may be completely neglected. In addition, regulation of foods is considered by one ministry as merely the avoidance of unhygienic food and by another ministry as the avoidance of adulterated food. Wholesomeness, safety, nutritional value and the appealing characteristics of food are hardly regulated.

Concluding Remarks

International food trade is continuing to grow as countries rely on each other to secure adequate and varied food supplies through the import and export of food products. The opportunities for more growth are expected as a result of the liberalization of trade governed by the rules of the WTO. Countries will have improved access to export markets but this improved access will be accompanied by greater competition. Food safety will play an important role in facilitating penetration into these markets and staying firm in face of competitors. This is particularly challenging to the NE countries where quality assurance systems in the food industry and food control need to be strengthened, up-dated and modernized. National food control systems aiming at protecting consumers against health hazards and fraudulent practices need to be based on a statutory framework supported by administrative officers, inspectors and analysis with adequate laboratories and other facilities needed for effective administration of the legislation as detailed above.

The proper implementation of such legislation will encourage fair trade practice, whereas trade restrictions can occur where there are differences in the requirements or procedures of food control system between countries. This may include different requirements for monitoring and sampling, different detection and analytical methods, application of different standards and food safety requirements. Governments must ensure that the legislative base to their food control system is adequate and the requirements are scientifically based. It is obvious that there is a great need for harmonization of standards, application of food safety standards based on science and risk analysis and the establishment of equivalency between systems, all in line with the Codex Alimentarius and the SPS and TBT agreements of the WTO. For countries in the NE, compliance with SPS measures represents a real necessity because these measures are more of an issue for products which are associated with higher sanitary or phytosanitary risks, for example meat and fruit, and as we have seen in the previous sections these commodities are among the region's main food exports.

Food safety must be integrated along the entire food chain, from farm to fork. But for this to be achieved countries should work on improving the hygienic quality of raw foodstuffs at the agri/aquacultural level by applying the principles of good agri/aquacultural practice and animal husbandry and by improving the environmental conditions under which animals and plants are grown. They should also promote the application of effective food safety assurance system to ensure the safety of processed and manufactured foods. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system is an important development in this area whose application could also be extended throughout the food chain, from farm to fork. Finally governments and industry should work together to educate food handlers in the principles of safe food preparation.

Governments should also be willing to adapt their established systems and procedures and be committed to adequately resource an SPS control system once it has been established. Typically, the less developed a country is, the higher the costs of compliance, since its food safety capacity and regulations tend to be less strict.

For this to be achieved in the Near East countries, technical assistance from international organizations and funds from donors are essential.

Technical assistance can take many forms, including

Improving food safety in the Near East region is directly related to increasing food security. This is first by providing safe food for local consumption, which is a pillar in the definition of food security. Second by improving food safety, the countries of the region can have easier access to international markets and hence to securing revenues, which will be used to pay for food imports necessary to fill the food gap in the region. Statistics indicate that this gap is increasing steadily, due to the increase of the population and of prices. Countries, particularly, the non-oil exporting ones, face more difficulties in securing adequate foreign exchange earnings to finance the required food imports. For these countries, foreign exchange earning could be gained through agricultural export, mainly fruits and vegetables, to the EU; the main trade partner. Due to water scarcity, agricultural and food production is not likely to increase considerably. However, production of fruits and vegetables and consequently, trade with the EU is expected to increase in future since the growing scarcity of water may drive some of the NE countries to shift further to the production of fruits and vegetables, which have a relatively higher returns to water use.

Whether or not a country is totally or partially dependent upon local or foreign food supplies to satisfy its needs, the growing complexity of problems of food production, handling, processing and marketing has now created a state of affairs in which food may adversely affect the health and economy of individuals and nations. Therefore, the development of effective and adequate food safety and quality control systems at national levels is now, more than ever, recognized to be of utmost importance. Such food safety and quality control systems should be able to safeguard consumers against any immediate or long-term threat to health which may be caused by microbiological contaminants, excessive pesticide residues, excessive levels of food additives, antibiotics, hormones and mycotoxin residues, metallic contaminants, spontaneous spoilage, pest infestation and subsequent wastage and/or disease outbreak, against poor quality or fraudulent food and in general against any characteristic in food which may adversely affect the consumer' health or abuse his acceptance or trust. In addition, such an effective food safety and quality control service should be able to eliminate wastage due to improper handling and/or processing, restrict 93dumping94 and promote fair and smooth national, regional and international trade.


  1. The NE countries are urged to develop positions in a wide range of agricultural trade issues concerning their negotiations with the rest of the world. The common regional stand will carry a weight in global trade negotiations. The existing regional and sub-regional groupings can play a vital role for developing a common agenda and strategy in the international trade milieu. The promotion of intra-regional trade will also serve as a vehicle for furthering food security objectives in the region.
  2. Since many countries in the region are facing serious constraints for the expansion of food products, they may then aim at establishing an appropriate institutional framework for region-wide joint action to create a common management of resources towards regional agricultural co-operation which may help reduce the widening food deficit in the region and enhance food security at national and regional level. This may include but not restrict to:
  3. The NE countries are urged to strengthen their national capacities aiming at updating food standards and improving quality of their food in a holistic approach extending from farm to fork. They need, in particular to (i) improve laboratory facilities for food safety to meet emerging threats of hazards and contamination of chemicals, microbial, or of physical origin, (ii) update their legislation and harmonize them with the Codex to meet the requirements of WTO's agreements on SPS and TBT including food quality and safety, (iii) and modernize their inspection service and harmonize their inspection procedures by adopting a risk analysis based approach.
  4. The NE countries are urged to strengthen their national marketing systems that would enable movement of goods to the international and regional markets. This includes transportation and shipping facilities, packing and packaging facilities, information on foreign markets and post harvest technologies.
  5. International organizations (FAO and WHO) are urged to continue to provide assistance to the NE countries through the provision of training in different aspects including risk analysis, HACCP system, good hygiene practices at regional, sub-regional and national levels, funds,85 etc.


Mohamed, B. El-Eraky (1999). FAO-RNE. Agricultural trade in the region : Main trends, existing trade agreements and emerging policy issues. Twenty-six FA Regional Conference for the NE, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran, 9-13 March 2002.

Expert Consultation on the Preparation for the next trade negotiations on agriculture, Rabat, Morcoo, 9-11 Dec. 1998.

Trade liberalization policies, intra-regional trade and opportunities for sustainable agricultural development, FAO publication.

The impact of the Uruguay Round Agreement (URA) on intra-regional agricultural trade in the NE, FAO publication.

Audun Lem, Fisheries Department, FAO (1998). Implications of the UR round for trade in fisheries products with some information on recent developments in fish trade between Africa and the European Union.

Naser El-Din A. Hag Elamin, FAO (1998). Implementation of the UR round agreement on agriculture in the context of emergeing issues in food and agriculture sector in the Near East.

Rima Zu'mot (2003). Risk based approach for important food, the Jordan experience.

John S. Wilson and Tsunehiro Otsuki, 2001, Global Trade and Food Safety:Winners and Losers in a Fragmented System, World Bank.

FAO, production yearbook, different issues, FAO-RNE.

FOA, Trade yearbook, different issues, FAO-RNE.

IFPRI, 2003, 93A 2020 Vision for Food,Agriculture, and the Environment94,


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