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FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

INTERVIEW: Effective food safety controls are critical to agrifood trade

Agrifood trade among the countries of Central Asia and South Caucasus is on the agenda next week, as trade experts and government officials gather here for “The Samarkand Conference.”

On the eve of the three-day event – organized by the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO) in close cooperation with FAO and the Samarkand Agricultural Institute – FAO economist David Sedik zeroes in on one of the key topics: food safety control and trade.

Why a conference on agrifood trade policies in these countries?

There is currently a widespread trend in the region of limiting trade through tariff and food safety policies. Many countries speak of food self-sufficiency as a goal of their agricultural trade policy.

FAO has never supported food self-sufficiency as a path to greater food security. The food self-sufficiency approach has been shown to bring only price increases and a deterioration in living standards. Rising trade, on the other hand, has proven time and time again to go along with rising living standards and increased food security.

Look at the Russian Federation. Has the current embargo on food from many countries raised living standards in that country? Quite the contrary. Food prices have risen, incomes have fallen and people have become more – not less – food insecure.

When agrifood trade is supported by an international rules-based system that encourages fair competition, fair access to markets, uniform sanitary and phytosanitary policies without government interference, this results in greater trade. And greater trade has nearly always been shown to increase household incomes.

What are some of the policies FAO will raise at the conference?

I prefer to explain one topic in depth rather than explain multiple topics incompletely. So, I’ll speak about food safety control in the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.

First, what is meant by food safety control?

The food safety control system is the system of surveillance and control of food safety and animal and plant health.

In both the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, the primary supposed economic benefit of the union is the single market. The single market is the main pillar upon which the free movement of trade rests.

Food safety rules and regulations – while they are a vital, correct and totally justified limitation on trade (after all, they are supposed to limit trade of unsafe food) – are nevertheless a limitation on trade.

Now, I’ve noted that limits on trade usually lead to lower food security. So, how do you construct an effective system of food safety control (one that ensures safe food) in an economic union without unduly limiting trade? Food safety systems always have bureaucratic costs. In order to make up for these costs they should bring benefits. The more effective they are at ensuring food safety, the more benefits they bring. So, food safety is always a trade-off: some extra costs, but extra benefits as well.

The two unions have different approaches, then?

In both the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, there are two levels of food safety control: the central authorities (the European Commission and the Eurasian Economic Commission) and the food safety authorities of each nation state.

Though the names sound the same, there are considerable differences between central food safety authorities in the two unions, and they mostly concern the relationship between the center and the national food safety authorities.

In the EU, the primary responsibility of the European Commission in food safety control is 1) to set overall food safety policy and issue regulations and directives in the area of its mandate. 2) In order to do this it monitors and controls the food safety systems of nation states. 3) It does this by checking whether these systems uphold the principles of food safety control that have been proven to work around the world and that are supported by international agencies, such as FAO.

In the Eurasian Economic Union, the Eurasian Economic Commission has the authority to issue food safety regulations. However, it does not have the authority to monitor or enforce them on the country level. Moreover, member state governments are not obliged to change their own laws to be consistent with the decisions coming from the Commission in Moscow.

This creates a very difficult situation for food producers in the region. Which regulations do they follow – domestic ones or those issued by the central authorities? Moreover, what incentive do they have to follow central regulation when there is no effective enforcement?

What other differences exist?

In both unions, country-level authorities are responsible for seeing that food business operators produce safe food by following regulations. However, while country authorities in the EU are subject to constant evaluation and monitoring from the EC, in the Eurasian Economic Union country authorities are not subject to the same scrutiny.

In both unions, obligatory food safety regulations issued from the center are meant to be implemented at country level. The system in the EU is quite a bit more effective, though, and the reason is quite simple: the EU has far more effective tools for enforcing its decisions.

The Eurasian Economic Union is still young, and it has not yet absorbed this lesson. To be fair, this is a difficult issue for all economic unions. No other economic union to my knowledge has as powerful and effective a system of food safety control as the EU, which required decades to develop. Moreover, the system was put into place only after the food safety crises of the 1990s.

Though today it may seem like the system is quite onerous, I don’t think there are many who would like to return to the system that led to the crises of the 1990s. Other unions, including the Eurasian Economic Union, have just not reached that type of breaking point that the EU faced, and are therefore not willing to cede that much authority to the center. But that does not mean they are not at risk.

So, what’s the bottom line?

While many EU countries complain about how Brussels has an overweening power over their own sovereignty, the fact remains that when it comes to food safety, this is the most effective system in an economic union to date.

The Eurasian Economic Union and other economic unions ignore the EU’s lessons at the risk of having the costs of a food safety bureaucracy without the benefits of effective food safety control. The EU has a costly bureaucratic system, but it does seem to work well. Some say too well.

It goes without saying that, despite extra costs, foods kept safe in the EU allow a lively agrifood trade between member countries. With a better “architecture” of food safety in the Eurasian Economic Union the promise of a single market within the five member countries would be better served.

David Sedik is senior policy officer with FAO’s Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia. He is also responsible for the delivery of the Organization’s Regional Initiative on Improving Agrifood Trade and Market Integration.

1 November 2016, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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