Crisis delays Sri Lanka’s food export plans to India

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to enable Sri Lanka to operate food laboratories accredited by India, which was to be signed between the Food Control Unit of the Ministry of Health and the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI), has been postponed due to the prevailing political crisis.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, an official from the Export Development Board (EDB) said: “It will take another two or three months because they will take some time to finalise the MoU. We were in the process, but due to these problems our ministry is not functioning”.
India has traditionally not recognised the certificates issued for processed food items by the Sri Lankan laboratories, resulting in local food exporters facing numerous issues in dealing with India. Therefore, upon a request made by Sri Lanka, FSSAI recently identified three labs.
The three labs which have been set up to test the Sri Lankan processed food exports to India are the State-owned Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and two international labs – namely SGS Lanka Ltd. and Bureau Veritas. These labs are situated in Colombo, Malabe, and Moratuwa.
“These laboratories have uploaded all their testing methods to the FSSAI website in India. The Food Control Unit is the responsible organisation for these FSSAI-accredited labs in Sri Lanka. They have to have a bilateral understanding with FSSAI,” the official said.
The official said that the issues in exporting to India were discussed as part of the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). However, this MoU would not be a part of ETCA nor be dependent on its signing.
Accordingly, upon the MoU signing, these labs will check and issue test reports confirming that processed foods of Sri Lanka meet Indian food safety standards, so that food consignments will not be rejected at the Indian checkpoints.
However, accordingly to the EDB, this agreement alone will not boost the processed food exports to India and emphasised the importance of promotions in order to attract consumers.
“We cannot expect exports to rise immediately through this. We have to do some promotions; we have to educate the buyers; we have to educate our exporters to India; we have to rebuild the lost confidence”, the official said.
Though India is the third biggest export destination for Sri Lanka, Indian agencies at the Port of Entry have either been rejecting Sri Lankan food consignments or putting them through retests in India, which result in procedural and clearance delays and additional costs for local exporters.
Complying with India’s food standards is a major challenge for local food and beverage exporters.
Such non-tariff barriers are particularly burdensome and discouraging for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) because of their fixed costs.
Having identified this issue, EDB initiated discussions with FSSAI and as a result, a delegation, headed by FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal, visited Sri Lanka for a stakeholder consultation workshop in May, 2018.
They agreed to consider a few Sri Lankan conformity assessment laboratories to test Indian standards.
It should be highlighted that, at that point, FSSAI had not registered any laboratory outside India with them.
Continuing the progress, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary/Technical Barriers to Trade (SPS/TBT) Committee, established by the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade for ETCA negotiations, identified five conformity assessment labs to recommend to FSSAI for registration, namely the laboratories at Registrar of Pesticides (ROP), Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), Tea Board, SGS Lanka Ltd. and Bureau Veritas.
An audit team from FSSAI arrived in Sri Lanka to audit these five Sri Lankan Laboratories comprising three government labs and two private sector labs. Following the audit, FSSAI recognised these three labs to test processed food exports to India.
According to EDB, no additional costs have been incurred by the Government to have these labs recognised by India.