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.
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.