Most Central Asian countries have broken food safety control systems, finds paper

Severe food safety challenges in CAREC member countries; overlaps in mandates and institutional conflicts in China

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Monday 16 January 2023
A two-tiered approach to improving food safety systems in CAREC region is an appropriate policy strategy. Photo: iStock

The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) region faces severe food safety challenges due to fractured safety control systems, according to Asian Development Bank (ADB) ’s working paper.

The report, Strengthening Food Safety Systems in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Member Countries: Current Status, Framework, and Forward Strategies, looked at food safety in the CAREC region. 

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CAREC is an Asian Development Bank (ADB)–supported initiative, created in 1997 to encourage economic cooperation among countries in the region. Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Mongolia and China are a part of it.

The programme’s goal is to accelerate economic growth and poverty reduction in member countries.

The complexity of food control systems is adding to the severity of food safety problems, the working paper found. This has resulted in wide variations in the region’s structure and design of food control systems. Most CAREC member countries have limited cooperation among local and international agencies, it found.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food safety as “the absence—or safe, acceptable levels—of hazards in food that may harm the health of consumers.” 

In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that unsafe food results in more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancer. Consumption of these unsafe food products has resulted in around 600 million cases of illnesses and approximately 420,000 deaths every year.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, 163 cases of salmonella infection, 32,081 cases of E Coli infection, 8,395 cases of hepatitis A and 56 cases of botulism were recorded in 2017.

In the same year, Georgia recorded 5,969 suspected food-borne diarrhoeas, Kazakhstan had 75,500 cases of food-borne diseases due to brucellosis and hepatitis and Uzbekistan registered 200 cases of salmonellosis and botulism among children. 

Various food-borne diseases are quite common in Pakistan, like different forms of hepatitis, typhoid, animal contact diseases, influenza and aerosolised dust, along with soil contact diseases. 

Inefficiencies in the food safety system in China were also flagged by the paper, where food safety is currently regulated and monitored by many national agencies and several provincial and local agencies. So there is no single agency responsible for overseeing food safety in the country.

National agencies involved in food safety in China are: 

  • State Food and Drug Administration 
  • Ministry of Health
  • Ministry of Agriculture
  • State Administration for Industry and Commerce
  • General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine
  • Ministry of Commerce
  • Ministry of Science and Technology
  • National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety

As several agencies are involved in monitoring and regulating food safety in the country, the division of duties needs to be clarified, pointed out the report. This has created overlaps in mandates and institutional conflicts, which eventually led to the inefficiency of the country’s food safety system. 

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Nevertheless, the Chinese government has made efforts to harmonise its food safety regulations with the creation of the State Food and Drug Administration in 2003.

Microbial contamination, excessive food additives and excessive drug residues are the major food safety challenges in the country, based on data from the government-administered 2019 National Food Safety Inspections.

These food safety issues cannot realistically be entirely eliminated — food safety will remain a long-term effort in China until the production system of agriculture and food processing industries has been greatly improved.

Regarding international trade among CAREC member countries (CMCs), both food exports and imports account for about 90 per cent of total agricultural trade.

The region’s food exports and imports are highly perishable products that pose serious food safety risks if proper safety standards are not followed throughout the supply chain and all the way to final consumption.

The study found that state agencies in CAREC member countries typically need more operational funding to operate and implement changes in their food safety policies and regulations.

A two-tiered approach to improving food safety systems in the region is an appropriate policy strategy, according to the report. 

This approach categorizes tier-2 countries as relatively more advanced in their food safety frameworks and adoption of international food safety standards.

Tier-1 countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan and Tajikistan, while tier-2 countries are Georgia, China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

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Afghanistan has a weak food safety system, while Tajikistan’s framework remains fragmented, non-responsive 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.

Strategies that harmonise food safety legal frameworks, regulations and practices and improve the capacity of stakeholders to implement food standards need to be adopted, the study recommended. 

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