Challenges in Agro-Food Exports: Building the Quality Infrastructure

By Goonatilake, Lalith | International Trade Forum, July-September 2010 | Go to article overview

Challenges in Agro-Food Exports: Building the Quality Infrastructure


Goonatilake, Lalith, International Trade Forum


Many developing countries are ill equipped to take advantage of the opportunities provided by trade. Weak infrastructure, lack of capacity and the inability to meet technical product specifications and stringent requirements in terms of quality, safety, health and the environment impede their integration into global markets. They need to enhance compliance with technical standards to heighten consumer confidence and gain access to regional and global value chains, especially those of transnational corporations.

In the rules-based trading system, the agro-food sector provides immediate opportunities as many developing countries have good climatic conditions, available arable land and a sufficient pool of labour to expand agricultural production. Given the low level of initial investment required in small-scale operations, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in agro-processing can readily move up the value chain, thereby generating poverty reduction and development in rural communities.

Role of national quality infrastructure

With the globalization of production, and supply and retailer chains, ensuring the safety and quality of products is vital. Recent health concerns arising from bovine diseases, bird flu and various toxins entering the food chain have led to stringent standards and conformity procedures, particularly in the area of agro-food exports. Exporting countries must acquire the capability to conform to requirements in terms of quality, safety, health and the environment if they are to participate fully in global markets.

Two WTO agreements--Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS)--define the rules under which standards and technical regulations can be formulated and how disputes are resolved. In formulating the agreements, it was recognized that developing countries have significant gaps in national standards infrastructure, and specific clauses in the agreements refer to the need for technical assistance to be provided to them.

The technical regulations and standards applied in developing countries, including packaging, marking and labelling requirements, are often incompatible with international standards. Laboratory capacity to test and certify goods for developed markets is also patchy. Steps taken to nurture a quality culture will build client and consumer confidence, not only in international markets, but also in domestic markets.

Building blocks of compliance capacity

Developing countries must be able to prove the reliability of their test data, maintain high-quality certification and inspection procedures and establish conformity to international standards and/or those applied in importing countries. Local metrological (measurement and calibration) and testing capabilities reduce testing costs which would be incurred if products could only be tested abroad or through locally based international services.

Demonstrating a capacity to conform to standards requires the establishment of efficient testing, certification and accreditation mechanisms to meet the requirements of the SPS and TBT agreements. Compliance infrastructure will broadly include the following: national standards institute; microbiology and chemical testing laboratories; national metrology institute; and national accreditation certification capacity to certify enterprises for ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 22000 and to train internal auditors.

Compliance services are costly but should be considered a public good. Least developed countries in particular may require international assistance to establish costly new standards infrastructure.

CASE STUDY

SUPPORTING "FARM TO FORK' TRACEABILITY

Egypt

In 2002, following a series of food scares in the 1990s, the European Union (EU) created the European Food Safety Authority which focuses on tracing the production of food and feed through all phases of production, processing and distribution. …

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