The CAREC region faces severe food safety challenges but potential trade benefits of improved systems could be considerable, according to a report.

The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) includes Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Mongolia, and China.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) report provides national and regional insights to help strengthen food safety systems in the region that could enable an increase in intra-regional and global food trade. It recommends the adoption of strategies that harmonize food safety legal frameworks, regulations, and practices and improve the capacity of stakeholders to implement food standards.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, 163 cases of Salmonella infection; 32,081 E. coli infections; 8,395 cases of hepatitis A; and 56 of botulism were recorded in 2017. Cases of diarrheal diseases because of Salmonella infection in Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic were significantly higher than in developed countries in 2016. In 2017, Georgia recorded 5,969 suspected foodborne diarrhea cases, Kazakhstan had 75,500 cases of brucellosis and hepatitis, and Uzbekistan registered 200 cases of salmonellosis and botulism among children.

Complexity issues
The region is affected by the complexity of food control systems adopted by each country. This has resulted in wide variations in the structure, maturity, and design of such systems. Most CAREC member countries (CMCs) have fractured food safety control methods with limited cooperation among local and international agencies, according to the report.

There are only a few formal mechanisms that encourage sharing of food safety information and collaboration among CMCs. Also, many members have outdated systems and standards typically based on individual products and substantial end-product testing, inconsistent with World Trade Organization sanitary and phytosanitary standards.

State agencies in CMCs suffer from a lack of funding that limits their ability to operate and implement changes in food safety policies and regulations. Other problems include a focus on regulating food items rather than operators, a reliance on paper-based methods and end-product testing, outdated lab equipment, and a lack of understanding of the HACCP approach.

An ADB project in the region ran from 2016 to 2021 to improve food safety standards, national labs, and training.

Building capacity
Food exports and imports are perishable products that pose serious food safety risks if standards are not followed throughout the supply chain until final consumption. The region relies heavily on imports to meet the demand for food. This may lead to exposure to unsafe products.

Given the economic situation in the region, local food quality systems may not be able to properly handle food products during transport and storage; which may affect the quality of domestically available products. Strict compliance with food safety standards would be costly and affect the price competitiveness of the region’s products in the short term.

A large number of small-scale livestock producers makes meat monitoring at the farm level difficult. This translates to inadequate testing of samples at slaughterhouses and processing plants for antibiotic residues. From slaughterhouses, fresh meat products are sent to processors, wholesalers, supermarkets, and retailers. There is a high risk of microbial growth during transport because of a lack of refrigerated trucks. Meat processing is done in facilities that are not compliant with international best food safety practices, which raises the risk of contamination, said the analysis.

Establishing a regional expert group and developing a website for the CAREC Food Safety Network was recommended to harmonize sanitary and phytosanitary frameworks.

A two-tiered approach to improving food safety systems in the region is an appropriate policy strategy, according to the report. This method categorizes tier 2 countries as more advanced in their food safety frameworks and adoption of international standards. These nations are Georgia, China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan has a weak food safety system while Tajikistan’s framework remains fragmented, nonresponsive, and lacks decision support and infrastructure. Pakistan’s system is missing someone to coordinate activities among agencies, making food safety governance cumbersome and complex, often failing to facilitate trade and protect public health.

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