Caribbean countries expanding share in US$130 billion global seafood market
Belize and Jamaica are two Caribbean seafood exporters already tapping into markets controlled by the European Union (EU)—a tough market to access because of stringent standards which require that countries have systems in place to ensure that their exports are not only safe for consumption but also free from harmful pests and pathogens.
In the case of Belize, which has traditionally exported shrimp to the EU, it is moving to export conch to that market for the first time in 2016, according to Endhir Sosa, Senior Food Safety Inspector, Belize.
Sosa was among the eighteen professionals from CARIFORUM who recently received management training on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) in Iceland. The training was offered under the capacity-building component of an EU-sponsored project to implement SPS Measures under the 10th European Development Fund (EDF) regime. The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) are collaborating to implement the fisheries component of the project.
Sosa broke down the meaning of this very technical term, which could just as well be the acronym for ‘safe and profitable seafood’: “In a nutshell, it’s just a series of procedures, of guidelines, of requirements, that one needs to implement to basically prove that what they are producing is safe,” the food safety expert commented.
“Confidence is what is key! It is what everybody seeks when it comes to the purchase and consumption of food products,” he said, adding that, “SPS is one of those routes where you can establish that confidence in your product.”
This has been the case for Belize: “When BAHA [the Belize Agricultural Health Authority] first started in 2000, you could count the number of countries we were exporting to on your hand. It wasn’t more than 5 to 7. Today, thanks to SPS, thanks to the confidence that our SPS program has put into our products, not only fish, the markets have increased almost three-fold. Now we have a little over 30 markets,” Sosa said.
Building SPS capacity
Chairman of the Caribbean Fisheries Forum, Denzil Roberts, who is also the Chief Fisheries Officer in Guyana, notes that: “The fisheries sector within the CARIFORUM region continues to play an important role in rural development, food and nutrition security, income generation and foreign exchange earnings. However, it must be recognized that there is a paucity of skilled personnel within the region to further develop the sector in keeping with the emerging challenges.”
The intensive two-week training course recently held in Iceland served to help fill this knowledge gap in the Caribbean.
Susan Singh-Renton, the CRFM’s Deputy Executive Director, notes that, “The CRFM/UNU-FTP SPS Management Course has been very successful in achieving its objective of exposing CARIFORUM Fisheries and Agricultural Health and Food Safety experts to the key lessons and best practices of the Icelandic fishing industry in producing safe and wholesome fishery products of an international standard.”
She added that, “At the close of the course, participants reflected on and also documented how they would apply what they had learned to improve fisheries SPS management in their home countries.”
For his part, Roberts hopes that the trainees will immediately begin to impart what they have learned to others in their national networks. Roberts furthermore hopes that trainees will implement internationally recognized safety standards for seafood, thereby safeguarding the health of the local population while ensuring market access to meet global market demands.
Singh-Renton said that the CRFM will also strive to do its part to provide follow-up regional support for improved SPS management for the region’s fishing industries, including facilitating continued networking among the course participants.
Gatekeepers guard against food fraud
“One of the more frequent but often overlooked problems within the Caribbean is food fraud and mislabeling,” notes Dr. Wintorph Marsden, Senior Veterinary Officer in Jamaica’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries.
Marsden said that Jamaica is considered a major transshipment hub for fish and fishery products to the wider Caribbean region, and so the burden is on Jamaica, as a first point of entry, to implement a system of verification of products entering its food chain.
To combat food fraud, it is an absolute necessity to introduce traceability, said Marsden. This can now be done electronically, with modern systems of recording, such as the use barcodes, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and other tracking media within the production chain.
In the Dominican Republic, Mateo’s job is to review all the supporting documentation for seafood imports and exports.
She has observed, though, that, “Some of these documents might have statements to make the consumers believe that they are getting a high-quality product while they are actually getting products with less quality and deliberate mislabeling.”
“While in Iceland, I learned that deliberate mislabeling of food, the substitution of products with cheaper alternatives, and false statements about the origin of foods, are all food fraud,” Mateo said.
She said that as a result of the Iceland training, the Dominican Republic is now in the final stage of building an improved national SPS system for fishery and aquaculture products which was initiated with the support of the government of Chile.
Safe and healthy food also vital at home
Whereas the move to implement SPS measures was originally focused on export trade, regional experts also indicate that they are vital to food safety and health even within our region.
“The Caribbean is known to be a huge importer of food products,” Sosa noted. “We have to look after our population, we have to look after the health of our people, we have to look after the health of our environment and our agricultural products; and thus SPS—although at this point it is mostly the industrialized countries that are pushing it, that are requiring it—should be really and truly across the board.”
Science-based risk assessment and risk analysis of imports are also key in protecting vital agriculture and fisheries industries.
We have been mandated with the task of being the gatekeepers when it comes to food safety and agricultural health and we take that responsibility very seriously. Sometimes the public will get angry with us, because they truly don’t understand why we are doing this. ‘Why can’t I bring this across the border?’ But the realization is that if a disease [is introduced], it could potentially destroy an entire industry—whether it be, for example, bringing across poultry with avian influenza, or bringing in diseased shrimp—it could wipe out an entire multi-million-dollar industry,” Sosa warned.
Positioning small producers for export Sosa noted that SPS measures were initially geared towards industrial markets but now they are encouraging small producers to position themselves for export by implementing SPS Measures.
More importantly, he said, implementing SPS measures is the first step that producers will need to make to even think about trading on the world market.
Rainforest Seafoods is a leading Caribbean producer and exporter based in Jamaica with operations in Belize. It exports safe seafood to the EU. (Photo: Rainforest Seafoods)
BAHA monitors seafood processed for trade (Photo: BAHA)
Thor Asgeirsson, Deputy Programme Director at UNU-FTP, talks with CARIFORUM SPS professionals in wrap-up (Photo: CRFM)
Vietnam catfish often passed off as grouper in the Caribbean (Photo: VASEP)
Buyers opt for local snapper or imported seafood from the same freezer at a Belize supermarket (Photo: CRFM)
Southern Fishermen’s Cooperative in Grenada adds value to fish to produce smoked bacon for export to regional and international markets (Photo: CRFM)