Editor’s Note: The Caribbean, Central America, and Oceania comprise some of the world’s top tourist destinations. But behind the beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, and unique landscapes, each region is hard at work improving their food safety initiatives to be on par with the rest of the globe. The third part of this special report focuses on Oceania. The first and second parts focus on the Caribbean and Central America, respectively.
Explore this issueFebruary/March 2017
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The Fijian economy has been gaining strength consistently over the last six years, according to Ian Sayers, MBA, head of sector development for the International Trade Centre (ITC), the Geneva, Switzerland-based United Nations agency for trade and private sector development. “Fiji benefits from a wide variety of natural and mineral resources, including abundant forests, precious minerals, agriculture, and fish resources,” Sayers says. “While the country also benefits financially by exporting sugar, clothing, and Fiji Water, tourism is a mainstay of the economy.” A record high 754,835 visitors arrived in the country in 2015, according to Tourism Fiji.
Sayers points out that traditional elements of Fijian cuisine are still the staple diet in the countryside, namely sweet potatoes, taro, rice, cassava, coconut, and fish. “A particular delicacy is meat with vegetables cooked slowly underground using hot stones,” he notes.
“Dietary habits are different in the towns and cities where people rise early and often return home late because of long commuting times,” Sayers relates. “As in many other countries this has led to a reliance on processed and fast foods, which is having a devastating impact on the health of islanders, either because the nutritional parts have been ‘cooked out’ or because of an overuse of sugar, other carbohydrates, and salt.”
Many Fijian food businesses lack good quality refrigeration or packaging, recordkeeping, or a basic knowledge of hygiene and food preservation, Sayers says.
“This means that, despite a bountiful supply of excellent fresh produce, most international tourism resorts and hotels are forced to import most of their food items from abroad, usually from either Australia or New Zealand, to the detriment of Fijian farmers and entrepreneurs,” Sayers elaborates. “Until 2014 there were no internationally qualified food safety or quality advisory services available in Fiji that were affordable to small to medium‐sized enterprises, either agri-food businesses or farmers, and therefore, no way for them to get out of the import competition trap. Business growth was even more frustrating for those businesses with large enough volumes to secure export buyer interest. The only way to get advice on international certification like HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points] was either through expensive international food safety consultants or to wait for an appropriate project to provide the right kind of expert. There was no point of reference in Fiji.”
This is where the EU-funded, ITC-managed Improvement of Key Services to Agriculture Project (2012-2016) and a group of dedicated Fijian professionals have been able to make a difference, Sayers emphasizes. “After a year of tough and intensive ‘on-the-job’ training, international examinations, and qualifying work in real enterprises, the not-for-profit Fiji Food Safety Association (FFSA) was established in May 2015,” he relates.
“The ITC prompted the formation of this association after some of the FFSA members became internationally qualified through the project,” says Deepa Lal, FFSA president. Lal is employed as group quality assurance manager by Suva-based FMF Foods Limited, a purveyor of flours, rice, yellow split peas, noodles, potato chips, and cookies in Fiji, and one of the largest companies in the country, importing food products from around the world.
The FFSA is devoted to providing professional and practical advisory services in the fields of product safety, quality assurance, and all forms of value addition, including planning and management of safety and quality infrastructure, Lal explains. “Our membership is growing and represents food processing companies, retailers, caterers, environmental health officers, consultants, research organizations, academic institutions, and students,” she says.
“FFSA is a hub for sharing ideas, viewpoints, and best practices due to the diverse experiences of members acquired through quality management, consultancy, research, and training in the general quality infrastructure, food safety, agriculture, agribusiness, subject matter expert development, value addition, and operational capacity building,” Lal points out. “Fiji’s distinct location in the heart of the South Pacific means that FFSA’s members travel a lot to neighboring islands. Thus, we understand the most common food safety issues affecting the entire region and we see how people are devising solutions that can work in an island context.”
“There is a general lack of awareness of both food safety issues and cost-effective local ways to ensure compliant, safe, and healthy nutritious food,” Sayers says. “There is still a lack of harmonization of export-import protocols and standards across the Pacific countries despite regional trade agreements. More importantly, not many of the smaller countries recognize other island countries’ inspection services, certifications, or processes, although there are some exceptions. This situation is improving, particularly in fresh produce, as a result of a New Zealand and Australian government funded program called Pacific Horticulture and Agriculture Market Access.
“One reason for the slow pace of change is the cost of sending to the other islands the small number of qualified representatives of health and agriculture services and the gap in national capacity whilst they are away,” Sayers continues. “And there are hundreds of potential protocols to be harmonized. Each process can take months of study and testing, so biosecurity services tend to prioritize work on protocols where funding is available or the likely trade impact will be high. That often means potential niche market food products or specific varieties of seeds have to wait their turn to get biosecurity approval.”
“South Pacific supply chain actors are also taking too long to conform to even the basic requirements of international food safety standards, so major tourism buyers still cannot accept many local food suppliers,” Lal says. “The conformity challenge is compounded by a poor record and time keeping mentality among famers, collectors, shipping, and air freight providers and handlers at sea and air ports, plus processors and buyers.”
Lal is quick to point out that the availability of people who are passionate about the much needed kind of food safety advisory work is a problem in the South Pacific, as is finding enough funds to support their fixed costs. “Some 90 percent of the trained and experienced food safety advisors have this work as their second occupation that is done on weekends, in the evening, or during vacation time from their main jobs,” she explains. “The need for qualified food safety professionals is enormous among the nations of the South Pacific, but demand that can pay a living salary and support even the small costs of a professional organization or association is not evident, so some form of sponsorship or subsidy is required.”
“FFSA fills a gap along supply chains in Fiji by providing essential food safety advisory services that are practical, affordable, accessible, and of a certified international standard,” Sayers interjects. “There is also a lack of qualified and experienced food safety inspectors in the South Pacific region to verify quality compliance, licensing of premises, and processing facilities. The government services in this area face a workload that far exceeds their capacity.”
Climate change in the South Pacific is having an impact, too, Lal adds. “Cyclones, droughts or floods can wipe out an exporter’s or food processor’s supply from one season to the next so that a business cannot afford the cost of its annual audit for a previously hard won HACCP certification,” she says. “All of Fiji’s food sectors are at risk from climate change.”
There is some good news on the horizon, Sayers reports. With the support of ITC and the FFSA, the Chilean government’s external technical assistance service (la División de Asuntos Internacionales) is now working with Fiji’s Ministry of Health to develop a project aimed at strengthening the institutional framework for inspection and certification of agricultural products in Fiji, as well as the coordination of national food safety systems.
“This should cut down on microbiological risks and aflatoxins by improving local detection rates and reducing the time required for food processors and sellers to get tests,” Sayers projects. “Under the planned assistance from Chile, Fijian inspectors and Ministry of Health Food Unit professionals are initially being invited to visit Chile and spend time being trained in the excellent facilities found there. These staff will then play a leading role in establishing and managing improved facilities in Fiji upon their return.”
The Chile connection came about, Lal explains, because of ITC’s historic links with Chilean industry and the interest of the Chilean Government to support the Pacific islands. “Chile needed a partner in Fiji that could help orientate their teams on the ground,” she says. “FFSA and ITC have been able to provide a link to their project partners in the country. The only challenge now for Fiji is to find appropriate times for staff to undertake the training in Chile.”
Lal emphasizes that FFSA is examining every possible way to ensure its sustainability. “For example, the Fijian government supports employers to develop the skills of their workforce through a training supplement on employers’ tax contributions and tax relief on the cost of certified training,” she points out. “The Fiji National University manages accreditation and it takes more than a year for training curricula and a trainer’s quality to be assessed and accredited. However, it is worth the effort because enterprises are prepared to pay for accredited qualifications, which they can offset against their tax liabilities.”
Another sustainability line is for FFSA as an association, or its individual members, to gain representation status with other regional bodies such as Australian and New Zealand HACCP organizations. “ITC has helped us reach out to these globally recognized bodies for recognition and technical and moral support,” Lal notes.
Evidence of FFSA’s professionalism and credibility, Lal adds, is that Fiji’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism wishes FFSA to help it adopt ISO 22000 Standards for Fiji and has invited FFSA to be part of the committee to facilitate this transition. “Moreover, FFSA members have conducted several successful food safety workshops for Fiji’s all-important hotel and tourism groups with excellent feedback,” Lal says. “We are all very proud that FFSA is comprised of professionals with passion and zeal to create awareness of food safety and enthusiastically promote the organization’s theme of ‘safe food saves lives.’”
Commercial tuna fishing has long been a significant part of the economy in the Pacific Islands region, and tuna canneries, especially those in American Samoa, have been key stakeholders in the industry, dating especially to the 1940s.
Located within the geographical region of Oceania, American Samoa is one of only two possessions of the U.S. in the Southern Hemisphere, (the other being Jarvis Island).
Under Chapter 3 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (2016 Supplement Edition), products from American Samoa can be exported to the U.S. tariff free if the local
component is at least 30 percent of the value. This is a substantial advantage for tuna producers based on the island, as canned tuna imported into the U.S. from other countries is subject to a six percent to 12.5 percent duty for tuna packed in water or up to as high as 35 percent duty for an oil pack.
Capitalizing on these tariff benefits, StarKist Co., Pittsburgh, Penn., established a tuna processing plant on American Samoa in 1963 in the village of Pago Pago, the capital. With a staff of some 2,200 employees, the 329,000-feet2 plant currently processes, on average, 430 metric tons of frozen round fish per day on 13 canning lines and three pouch lines, according to David Calvin, StarKist’s director of quality and safety.
While a number of other tuna companies previously had a presence in American Samoa over the years, as of December 2016, StarKist is now the only one.
Calvin is quick to mention what he considers the strengths of the company’s operation in American Samoa. “For starters, we have a good relationship with our vessel owners (fish suppliers),” Calvin begins. “StarKist contracts from 10 U.S. flagged purse seiners for our light meat tuna supply and 13 U.S. long liners for our Albacore supply, from whom we receive only the more desirable whole round frozen fish, rather than just frozen loins. Another plus for us is our strong internal quality systems audit program. And we are very proud of our continuous training program which covers minimizing food safety risks, understanding regulatory requirements, and implementing protocols for continuous improvement.”
Food safety for StarKist starts with the fishing vessels, Calvin says. “Insuring that you know your suppliers and their harvesting practices and chilling/freezing capabilities is very important,” he points out. “We contract with vessel owners who have state of the art refrigeration systems for chilling and freezing the harvested wild caught tuna.”
For the canned tuna processing industry, including StarKist, tuna is usually frozen whole round on board of the fishing vessel immediately after catching, at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, without any change to its natural form.
Skinless and boneless raw tuna meat, which has been cut by whole loins and frozen prior to distribution, is another form many processors within the canned tuna industry are procuring from their suppliers.
“Many canners are processing frozen tuna loins from many different suppliers,” Calvin elaborates. “They do not process whole round frozen fish. The second cycle of freezing and thawing of tuna loins reduces the quality of the tuna and introduces a significant risk for histamine control.”
Calvin explains that, for canners working with loins only, the first cycle is chilling and freezing the fish on the vessels. The second cycle is freezing the skinless, boneless, cooked loins which have been vacuum packed in plastic bags.
“At StarKist, the frozen fish are received and stored until processed,” Calvin relates. “The processing involves thawing, evisceration, pre-cooking, cooling to less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, skinning, deboning, and canning. Freezing the tuna twice is detrimental to the quality of the fish.”
Scombrotoxin (histamine) poisoning is among the most common toxicities related to scombrotoxin-forming fish species ingestion, constituting almost 40 percent of all seafood-related food-borne illnesses reported to the CDC, according to Birkun et al (2016), citing Gould et al (2013). Scombrotoxin poisoning results from the consumption of inadequately handled and improperly refrigerated fish. It resembles an allergic reaction but is actually caused by bacterially-generated histidine enzyme in the fish’s tissues, as further reported by Birkun et al (2016), crediting Feng et al (2016).
Because American Samoa is a U.S. Territory, the StarKist tuna plant is regulated by the FDA, Calvin points out. “As a result, StarKist’s food safety risks are managed by implementing a robust Seafood HACCP program, which includes managing food safety risks from handling fish on the vessels to processing fish in its primary container,” he elaborates. “Histamine control is a critical control point in the tuna Seafood HACCP plans.”
Calvin says food safety issues impacting the Pacific Islands region are different than the food safety issues impacting the American Samoa StarKist plant, specifically because of StarKist’s FDA oversight.
Other Pacific Island tuna plants are only regulated by the FDA if they export to the U.S. and they may not have similar robust HACCP programs, he notes. “In regards to foreign plants in the Pacific Island region, FDA’s Asia-Pacific office is responsible for more than 29 countries in the region, excluding China and India,” Calvin says. “Thus, there are many opportunities for more oversight and regulatory inspections. With our plant being located in a U.S. territory, we have significantly greater external quality and safety oversight than our competitors.”