Fisheries managers, officials, and scientists will meet in Barbados next Monday, August 24, and Tuesday, August 25, to pore over technical documents and produce recommendations for a new regime for Sanitary and Phytosanitary measures (SPS) in CARICOM member states and the Dominican Republic (CARIFORUM).

The two-day meeting is part of ongoing investigation by the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) into food handling policies in 10 Caribbean countries.

Experts have opined that the Caribbean region???s ability to cash in on a potentially lucrative, international export trade in fish and seafood is being held back by huge gaps in measures to protect food safety and animal health.

Since starting their work in April, Jamaican SPS expert, Dr. George Grant, and international legal consultant Chris Hedley of the United Kingdom, have discovered that in most instances, compliance with globally established standards are voluntary ??? a worrisome development that stops member states from tapping into niche markets overseas and boosting foreign exchange earnings.

There are also either no legally binding protocols managing food safety throughout the region, or, where they are practised, they are disorganised and informal, the experts disclosed.?????It???s the prerogative of the government, or the official, competent authority to develop a system whereby the food safety measures can be validated, inspected and can be regulated,??? Dr Grant observed.

In two months of national consultations on SPS measures sponsored by the European Union (EU) in a number of CARIFORUM nations, Dr. Grant revealed that there are no documented and transparent protocols for ensuring safe food handling and monitoring food processes.

Several Caribbean nations are yet to include these standards in their national regulatory system, something that has long been mandatory in many of the developed nations to which regional fisheries and food industries might seek to export.??However, the veterinary expert and lawyer are developing a region-wide set of food safety and environmental safeguards which they hope to unveil for adoption in late August.

???The set of protocols we are developing is to have them formally presented and documented so that countries can use them as guides to developing their own particular protocols and practices,??? Dr. Grant stated.

As they travelled through the region, the team assessed benchmarks for food safety in individual countries and are encouraged by the progress towards SPS compliance. The experts note that most fish processors have implemented the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) standard for fish and fish product exports.

However, as the Caribbean fishing industry and food makers seek to take advantage of the Economic Partnership Agreement to gain access to markets in the EU, there is an extra layer of requirements based on official controls.??The grouping is requiring exporting nations to put enforceable legislation in place in each country to govern the SPS standards.

Through an EU-funded CRFM project, supported by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture, the team is hoping to establish a uniformed set of procedures across the industry.?????The question of where to draw the level in terms of how strictly you regulate food safety is really very much a national policy decision,??? Mr. Hedley remarked.

He cautioned that the process can be complicated, costly and potentially counter-productive: ???We don???t want to over-regulate and sort of crack a nut with a sledgehammer, if there are not substantial food safety problems.?????The more you regulate food safety and the more you demand in terms of that side of regulation, the more expensive products become, the less people are able to meet those requirements and they may be forced out of the business.???

The aim, the legal expert said, is to step-up protection measures, level the playing field, manage the risks involved in food protection, and facilitate trade across the Caribbean.?????There is no end point to that, it???s not like there is a single target we???re going to aim for and then that???s it – we can rest on our laurels. New challenges [are] arising all the time. It is a continual process of improvement,??? Mr. Hedley said. Yet, compliance is critical to the effectiveness of the new standards.

???[The EU] wants to make sure that the legislation is properly in place in the country, that with all these requirements are not just voluntary but with specific legal requirements to implement these food safety procedures and that they are penalties in terms of not complying with them. So, the businesses that don???t comply with them can be taken out of the licensing process,??? he explained.

As the two-man legal team sifted through the paperwork among Caribbean fisheries processors and exporters, another team of environmental monitors has been travelling the region, inspecting processing plants, cold storage facilities and testing laboratories.

The experts are anxious that the drive towards SPS compliance is not seen solely as jumping necessary hoops in the export trade. Mr. Hedley suggests that even if the region becomes compliant, there is still no guarantee there would be an appetite for their goods in the EU.??For Dr. Grant, another, often overlooked beneficiary is the Caribbean consumer, who can rely more safely on wholesome food from the sea.??

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