|Food-safety bill next on Lebanese Cabinet's plate
|Law would mean costly but needed upgrade for local agri-business
The Lebanese Cabinet is on the verge of approving legislation on food safety and quality seen as vital for the competitiveness of local exports, said Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad on Thursday.
The draft bill, completed in 2004 by a group of health and food experts in collaboration with the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNDIDO), outlines a set of internationally recognized food-safety regulations and procedures for local exporters to adopt at all levels of production. The bill also calls for the creation of a standards and conformity assessment infrastructure.
"With globalization, the opening of markets and the elimination of all trade barriers, competition has increased," Haddad said at the Arab Quality and Food Safety Conference at the Intercontinental-Phoenicia hotel on Thursday.
"Developed nations are increasingly concerned with food safety, so it's important for Lebanon and other Arab states to adopt a unified strategy for quality management that will improve their performance and reduce expenses," he said.
Non-conformity with international standards is a significant non-tariff trade barrier and prevents countries from gaining market access or preferential treatment, according to Gerardo Patacconi of UNDIDO. According to UNDIDO figures, 1.75 billion products from developing countries were disrupted in 2005 for not adhering either to WTO hygiene requirements and/or shipping, packaging and labeling requirements.
Though conditions differ across the Arab region, UNDIDO says that poor facilities,
limited expertise, and non-credible conformity assessment procedures - often the result of decentralized food-safety
enforcement mechanisms - undermine the growth of a competitive regional export sector.
"Market access is linked to your ability to prove your product is high-quality and low-cost, or the three C's - conformity, competitiveness and cost," said Patacconi in the key-note address during the first session of the conference.
One of the biggest obstacles to competitive exports in Lebanon is the absence of a semi-skilled agri-industrial workforce, said Raja Cortas, managing director of local canned-food company Cortas. He urged industrialists to invest in new facilities and adopt automated production methods and computerized technologies, but most importantly to upgrade their staffs.
"In Lebanon there is no problem finding university graduates with computer skills, the big gap is between and unskilled and semi-skilled workforce," said Cortas.
To remedy the problem, the Agri-food Syndicate is creating a vocational school in the Bekaa to train workers in food manufacturing. The union is planning the curriculum now and hopes to begin classes in the fall.
"Time is money, and since these investments will take time, the effort will be costly but it will result in significant cost reductions, lower wages, fewer product refusals and recalls, and an improved brand image," said Cortas, who lamented a lack of sources of funding and called on the banking sector to increase its loans to industrialists.
The initial investment required for international standardization is indeed substantial. Raja Harb, director of the Euro-Lebanese Center for Industrial Modernization, told The Daily Star that at minimum it costs $30,000 to $50,000 to upgrade infrastructure and around $100,000 for new machinery.
Harb credits EU-funded non-governmental organizations and local civic groups with prompting the regional shift toward international standardization by spearheading a campaign to encourage industrialists to improve their production methods. UNDIDO and QUALEB, an EU-funded body geared toward improving Lebanon's industrial sector, organized a five-day food-safety certification workshop.
A study commissioned by Harb's group determined that two categories of Lebanese exports, wines and spirits and spices and herbs, have the most international appeal since they can penetrate key export markets such as Europe, which has traditionally been Lebanon's largest trade partner outside the Arab countries.
"These sectors were doing fine before improvements," said industry consultant Bourhan Kreitam, "but we can secure an even bigger market share if we respond to demands of the market, and right now the requirement is quality."
Though the emphasis is on trade with the EU at the moment since the Association Agreement went into force, Kreitam believes Lebanon will soon be able to export at the global level to Africa, Asia and America. "In this era one can't think of one export market, they have to think globally," he said.
The Daily Star