KNOWING what food safety standards are and what it involves is one of the key challenges for farmers in Fiji.
The many who have had the technical training or gone through the education process, for instance at the Fiji National University's college of agriculture, have it better.
But the majority only learns about this through trading experiences or at the point of export. Some when it is almost too late.
This is also a challenge for developing countries who depend on agricultural produce for sustenance, farming for business and ultimately for exporting with the ability to meet the increasingly more stringent food safety standards imposed by developed countries.
Imposing food standards help raise the quality of products and therefore improve market performance which would in turn impact on cost of produce or product and also make more markets accessible. In the consumer world today, information about products and its quality is something many customers go after.
This is how quality brands have been established because they have been processed in a way upon a certain standard to make them appeal to consumers. The economic repercussions thus go a long way.
Recently, expressions of interest were sent out for a European Community-funded project implemented by the International Trade Centre (ITC) and Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) for agri-food processing enterprises to receive technical assistance which would support the strengthening of their supplying and export capacity. Those selected would be trained to implement action plans and processes for their organisations to be compliant with the Food Safety pre-requisites.
The objective of this exercise was also to enable future assistance in the area of food safety for additional enterprises following the completion of the project.
This, the Fiji Export Council (FEC) believes, would greatly boost the agricultural sector in the long-run in terms of raising standards and quality of produce while giving local enterprises the ability to conform to food standards in markets overseas which they can export to.
If enterprises who buy off produce from farmers continue to set the standard of the products they buy then farmers would be forced to raise the quality of produce.
The effects of this would trickle down the ladder and trigger a positive effect which would only add to the value of goods through the supply chain.
This would differ from other programmes in the past as it deals specifically with basic food hygiene in accordance with the standards set by countries that Fiji trades with.
"The ITC has implemented many successful programmes around the world particularly in third world and developing nations to improve their export capacity," FEC said.
"This is another such program tailored to suit Fiji's export environment and local enterprises must make good use of this opportunity.
"Enterprises handpicked for this training will be required to satisfy a few requirements over time and appoint staff to be trained full-time as the ITC will fully-fund the programmes. This is import bearing in mind the recent increase in the establishment of agri-based food companies in the country. This is also particularly important with the great shift of fresh produce to processed foods in the export market."
The opening up of new markets in New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the European Union and China means trainings as such were very important for the export industry.
Exporters often offer farmers advice on how to establish their growing practices. Some have engaged agents to do this for them or deal directly with farmers and determine price and handling.
Often many farmers lose out because their produce are turned away or deemed not export worthy because it is either contaminated or damaged because of unsuitable handling. The agriculture sector has great potential to become a top income earner for Fiji.
Although it has yet to match the manufacturing sector in terms of exports, the great increase in exports of papaya, dalo and frozen agri-based foods is an indication of markets now recognising the quality of our produce. For this program, the ITC would customise the intervention by segregating enterprises into two initial groups:
(i) enterprises seeking basic good agricultural and hygiene practices and food safety for Fijian markets in accordance with the Fiji Food Act;
(ii) enterprises willing to invest in attaining internationally recognised certification based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) based on Codex. Those interested can contact Wayne Lilo of the International Trade Centre on email email@example.com.
* Jone Kalouniviti is a public relations officer with the Fiji Export Council.