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On 3 November 2017, the Vietnam Food Agency (VFA) issued the 8th Draft ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) for Inspection and Certification of Food Hygiene for Prepared Foodstuff Products, which outlines the process for creating a single inspection and certification point for food products circulated on the ASEAN market. The issuance of the MRA shows the current progress of the MRA and may indicate Vietnam's potential intention to ratify the system.
ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is comprised of 10 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Any ASEAN arrangement must be ratified, recognized and implemented by the members.
Under this MRA, each member state must recognize the results of inspection and certification systems conducted by another member, subject to certain requirements under the arrangement. Where there are discrepancies in the product standards and requirements, the requirements of the importing country will be followed. The arrangement will create an ASEAN Food Safety Network portal where the member states will share information on their respective regulatory requirements such as legislation on food control, conformity assessments, and sanitary and phytosanitary measures and standards. The arrangement will also create a Joint Sectoral Committee (JSC) made up of representatives from each member state to establish criteria, rules and a system for inspection as well as to resolve issues arising from the implementation of the system.
The draft MRA also includes several annexes, addressing various topics:
- ASEAN Principles for Food Import Control System;
- ASEAN Principles and Guidelines for National Food Control System;
- ASEAN General Principles for Food Hygiene;
- ASEAN Principles for Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification;
- ASEAN Guidelines for the Design, Operation, Assessment and Accreditation of Food Import and Export Inspection;
- Codex Guidelines Exchange Information on Rejection of Imports.
If the member states ratify the MRA, each member must establish procedures to comply with the MRA as well as adopt policy and procedures set out in the MRA, including these Annexes.
If and/or when the ASEAN member states ratify and implement these changes, manufacturers and importers of prepared and packaged food products may see several benefits. The major impact is that it will reduce the regulatory burden and transactional cost for brand owners when selling products across ASEAN. Potentially, this market access might entice more food brand owners to sell across several markets. Given the various standards and requirements across these jurisdictions however, this benefit may only be enjoyed by food products which can comply with multiple sets of requirements where the products are intended to be sold.
The benefit for the public is that consumers in "weaker economies" will now potentially have access to more food products. The arrangement may also force members' authorities to enhance their food controls to meet the demands of the MRA. Given the broad scope of inspection and certification, increased enforcement and control is likely. Through the JSC, perhaps the members might even consider harmonizing their product standards and requirements and move closer to a common market as seen in the European Union.