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Contrary signs on impact of stricter US food safety regulation on Jamaican exports

28 November 2011

Press reports indicate that ‘Jamaica[n] non-traditional food exports have risen close to 12%’ in the first half of 2011. This is taken as indicative of a lack of concern over new US food safety regulations. Major non-traditional products exported to the US include: yams, baked products, sauces, dairy products and bird eggs.

Addressing a workshop for food exporters on preparing for the new food safety requirement, Industry and Commerce Minister Christopher Tufton called on Jamaican food processors to rise to the challenge of food safety standards.  JAMPRO, Jamaica’s investment and export promotion agency notes that the US takes some 54.5% of Jamaican exports (worth US$461.7 million).

However Minister Tufton also pointed out that ‘local laboratories are ill-equipped to handle the volume of work to be created under new food-safety laws which require exporters to produce lab-tested results on products bound for the United States’.  The chief executive officer for the Jamaica National Agency for Accreditation (JANAAC), Marguerite Domville, said ‘none of Jamaica’s 83 labs is equipped to perform tests for basic elements such as salmonella, pesticide residue, vitamin C, yeast, extraneous matter, mould, and fungus’. She said the labs need ‘a documented management system similar to the 9001 standard’ and ‘certified staff, equipment correctly calibrated to international standards, humidity conditions and other facilities to prevent cross contamination’. However three labs have been identified with the potential to rapidly meet US standards and these are in the process of being certified.

Jamaica now has less than 2 months to bring food exporters up to standards, according to press reports. Currently, ‘just one-fifth of Jamaican food exporters are considered sufficiently up to code to pass the stringent scrutiny that the law will impose.’

Meanwhile, press reports indicate the EU has established a €500,000 facility to assist Jamaican exporters in getting to grips with ‘new legislative requirements for existing and anticipated food safety’. Grants of up to US$50,000 will be made available for needs assessments and procedural assessments linked to food safety requirements.  This facility is linked to an additional government-supported scheme run by the Caribbean Export Development Agency, which can provide a further US$30,000 grant to support necessary investments.

Editorial comment

The current surge in exports of non-traditional products, rather than being indicative of a lack of concern about pending US food safety regulations, may in fact indicate some level of stockpiling by importers in an anticipation of future import restrictions.

The rush now to upgrade laboratories to meet new certification demands highlights the importance of investing not only in ensuring compliance with food safety import standards, but also the importance of investing in local capacity to ensure technically competent and cost-effective verification of compliance with the required standards.

The alternative is to send samples for verification in US laboratories, which may prove expensive, although this is a relative issue depending on the volume of business generated for certified labs by current and evolving patterns of trade.

The fact that the EU is extending support to food-safety-related initiatives highlights how the issue of food safety standards is not restricted to the US.  This raises the issue as to whether there is scope for some level of mutual recognition of standards compliance across OECD economies, in order to reduce the unit costs of compliance verification for small island exporting economies.

However, the planned EU support raises another issue of the status of the Caribbean Agricultural Health and Food Safety Agency (CAHFSA), inaugurated in Suriname in 18 March 2010, but not yet operational. There was an expectation that EU funding under the 9th and 10th EDF would become available for at least the first 2 years of CAHFSA. But this support has not materialised, and CARICOM member states have not moved ahead with ratification and the mobilisation of national contributions (with the exception of Suriname, which has provided the physical infrastructure where CAHFSA is currently housed). In the absence of such an agency, member states will have to go the route of Jamaica, mobilising support on a bilateral basis to enhance capacity to maintain a presence in traditional markets for their agricultural exports as food safety regulations become more pervasive and demanding. 

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