Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been urged to speed up the harmonization of food standards across the region to unlock the economic potential of the agri-food sector by 2015.

The ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) has published a paper which highlights five key areas where harmonization or ‘mutual recognition’ of food standards would greatly enhance overall food trade for the benefit of businesses and consumers in all ten member states.

These five key areas are nutrition labelling, pre-market registration, import/export certification, authorization of food ingredients and additives and contaminant limits and analytical methods.

According to Pushpanathan Sundram, principal advisor to AFBA, ASEAN nations rely upon the agri-food industry for economic growth, trade and investment and around 38 percent of the region’s population is employed by the sector.

However, he said the sector still only contributes 4.3 percent of the value of total ASEAN exports and only 2.5 percent of total intra-regional trade.

“The value of ASEAN agri-food exports has grown steadily since 2008, rising from US$38.2 billion to US$53.25 billion in 2011, but there remains significant untapped potential. With rising populations, an emerging middle class and a growing industry, we could greatly increase both intra and extra-regional trade and exports from the region,” he said in a news release.

Wai Phyo, AFBA Chairman for Myanmar, said ASEAN as a region needs to work towards a mutually acceptable set of food standards to encourage a single market approach to the food industry.

“One of the greatest impediments to trade today is differing food standards across ASEAN which act as a technical barrier to the free flow of food products,” he said. “The food industry is committed to supporting this process with the ASEAN Secretariat and other ASEAN task forces to build on their work.”

The AFBA paper also recommends ASEAN member states to consider Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs), which are commonly used in sectors such as electronics, manufacturing and cosmetics.

The MRAs will admit countries to recognize and accept each other’s standards, allowing products to be freely traded around the region. –Philstar