Improving Afghan food safety to boost exports
‘Have you ever seen a grape this big?’ Bharat Toshar from Euro Fruits asked his guests, rotating the engorged green fruit for all to see. Squeezed between rows of vines resting on trellises, the visitors being questioned slowly shook their heads. The grape in question was nearly the size of a small plum, plucked from a row of vines exposed to an experimental blend of drip irrigation and fertilizers.
The speaker was director of operations at Euro Fruits, a Mumbai, India-based exporter of fresh produce. His audience was composed of Afghan government officials representing a range of ministries related to food production and trade.
While members of the Afghan delegation relished the opportunity to learn about the farm’s advanced irrigation system – grapes and raisins are two of Afghanistan’s most celebrated products – agricultural training was not the purpose of the excursion. Toshar was explaining how Euro Fruits worked with its suppliers in the Indian state of Maharashtra to implement a system of traceability for its products. Every unit of grapes that Euro Fruits shipped around the world could be tracked down to the exact plot of land where it was harvested. If contamination was discovered in one cluster of grapes, others from the same farm could be identified and pulled from storage facilities without the entire inventory being compromised.
The instruction on traceability was just one component of a larger training programme on food safety undertaken by the members of the Afghan delegation. The itinerary for their tour, which stretched across India from 27 January to 8 February 2019, was developed by the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) based on input from relevant Afghan agencies. Funding was provided by the European Union as a part of the three-year Advancing Afghan Trade (AAT) initiative.
‘The primary objective of this capacity-building exercise was to help the participants understand how to set up a food regulatory system,’ said Sanjay Dave, a leading expert on food safety recruited by AAT to help develop the programme. The idea was to give participants both a macro and micro perspective on India’s food safety apparatus, he said. Destinations included Chandigarh, where participants received instruction on market inspections; Kochi, where the focus was on import and export procedures; and New Delhi, where the delegation visited a food-testing laboratory and received a number of briefings.
The programme comes at a critical time in Afghan economic development, with the government looking to reap the full benefits of its 2016 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). While WTO membership is designed to facilitate both imports and exports, no member is obligated to accept the food imports of another member if they do not meet established food safety requirements.
Afghanistan continues to struggle with food safety compliance issues in exports, which are caused by a number of factors. These include difficulty equipping and staffing government laboratories; a low level of knowledge about food safety among Afghan food producers and processors; and overlapping mandates among government institutions when it comes to food safety. According to the government’s Food Safety Act of 2016, the responsibility for food safety control is segmented between different ministries and agencies. The ministries of public health, agriculture, irrigation and livestock, industry and Commerce and the Afghanistan National Standards Authority each play different roles. Officials from all four of these institutions were represented in the delegation.
Through the programme in India, ITC aims to support the Afghan government in analysing the current division of food safety-related responsibilities among its various institutions. The participants would then have the requisite knowledge and technical support to develop a roadmap for strengthening food safety related activities in order to operate more efficiently and effectively. Pawan Agarwal, chief executive of FSSAI, is confident about Afghanistan’s future prospects.
‘I am sure that their experience in India and their first-hand knowledge of how FSSAI functions will help them to structure a food authority in Afghanistan,’ Agarwal said.