The new centre has been dubbed the National Center for the Quality Inspection of Foodstuff and Beverage and is housed under the Department of Standardisation and Metrology within the Laotian Ministry of Sciences and Technology (MOST).
The agreement was signed in Vientiane between the department’s Director-General Viengthong Vongthavilay and Tech Food of China Chairman Xie Yu. Tech Food of China is a Laos-based Chinese joint venture company specialising in food projects.
“This centre will play an important role to ensure the safety and quality of foods and beverages, including those imported and distributed in Laos,” said Vongthavilay during the ceremony.
“All food types will be tested for unsafe chemicals, with the aim to promote organic foods and enhance food security for the public.”
Described as the ‘first of its kind’ in the country, the centre will be equipped with modern laboratory equipment and highly qualified staff, so as to monitor all food products.
The centre will also receive co-operation and assistance from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Finance, and Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Laos to ensure all inspections are properly managed.
Laos’ primary food safety concerns over the years have been primarily dominated by foodborne diarrheal illnesses from bacteria such as Shigella and parasitic worm infections. This is a major concern in an LDC like Laos as healthcare provision is underdeveloped, and diarrhea could easily be fatal especially for young children.
“In developing countries [such as Laos], food borne illnesses such as diarrheal diseases contribute to the high rates of morbidity and mortality among children under five years of age. These developing countries subsequently incur the additional and significant expense of treating food borne diseases,” stated the Ministry of Health via its National Food Safety Policy document.
At its peak, foodborne diarrheal diseases caused over 4,600 cases of diarrhea with 6 deaths in a single year, after which accurate data and reports have been rare by the ministry’s own admission.
“Documented reports and research on food borne disease are limited [and] monitoring on food contamination is also limited,” it said.
“The prevention of foodborne illnesses and other adverse consequences of unsafe food is a major component of the [Laotian] government’s approach to achieve economic growth and sustainability of its social progress.”
The Ministry of Health categorises all food in the country based on risk into three categories: High risk (e.g. foods for high-risk consumers such as young children, patients and elderly), Medium risk (e.g. foods from a processing facility handling raw meat and chicken or frozen seafood), and Low risk (e.g food from retail food stores and prepackaged foods not served to a high-risk population) – all of which will be examined by the centre.
Taking a step forward
The new National Center for the Quality Inspection of Foodstuff and Beverage is a step for the government in terms of both increasing monitoring and achieving economic growth, and also plays an important role in improving local Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) standards for food.
SPS standards dictate measures that are taken to protect consumers from diseases, pests, or contaminants, and are particularly important for Laos as one of three Asian LDCs (the others being Bangladesh and Myanmar) expected to ‘graduate’ from LDC to ‘developing country’ status in the next five years.
“[Laos] met the graduation criteria for the first time in 2018 and is envisaged to graduate in 2024,” stated the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in its newly released Trade Impacts of LDC graduation report.
“The WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) concerns the application of food safety and animal and plant health regulations, [and is an important consideration for all foreign trade].”
SPS concerns are one of the main non-tariff measures still affecting Laos trade according to the United Nations’ Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2019, and by extension this would affect its economic development and potentially its graduation status too.
“Intra-regional trade is the predominant form of trade for [Laos] - Thailand especially accounts for 44% of its exports and China accounts for 28%,” said WTO.
“As a small, land-linked, and commodity-dependent country in a fast-expanding region, [Laos’] growth prospects are directly linked to its ability to benefit from integration into the global economy,” added the World Bank Group in a separate report on Laos’ foreign trade.
In the wake of COVID-19, both of Laos’ major trade partners, especially China, have clearly become more cautious when it comes to food imports so although the new centre is currently geared more towards local food safety concerns, it is crucial for Laos to prove its capability to maintain adequate food safety standards so as to ensure it can maintain foreign trade.
Other food sector improvement projects
This is likely also why Laos has been on a continuous food safety and quality drive in recent years, including participation in the Systematic Mechanism for Safer Trade (SYMST) Project together with the EU and International Trade Centre (ITC) earlier this year.
“This project will improve food safety and strengthen the regulatory framework for the control of plant health and pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables,” said Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) Vice Minister Bounkhouang Khambounhueng said.
Projects under way include technical support for watermelon farmers in the northern city of Luang Namtha, rice planters in Vientiane, and chilli farmers in the southern city of Pakxe.
China is one of Laos’ most common partners when it comes to the food sector – for example in 2019, the China sent experts from the China National Research Institute of Food and Fermentation Industries to assist Laos with agricultural product processing.
This level of close China-Laos collaboration has not sat well with everyone though – analysts have described these projects as well as billion-dollar investments from China in areas such as railway construction, hydropower and agriculture as Laos setting itself up to fall into a Chinese ‘debt trap’ and risking its fiscal independence.