MONROVIA, Montserrado – For the first time, Liberia is poised to have legislations to regulate food and establish an effective standard authority to govern consumer products.
Currently, there is a standard division that is mainly concerned with the quality of imports.
Experts say food safety programs in Liberia are either non-existent or completely ineffective. The country has no food laws and regulations, food inspection service, and adequate laboratories to test for harmful chemicals and pathogens in food.
It also has very few, if any, personnel trained in food safety. Additionally, Liberian universities lack food safety teachings or research.
These findings were made available by American technical consultants hired through the Liberia Agribusiness Development Activities, known as LADA, to assess the country’s food industry to identify gaps, determine a way forward, and provide recommendations.
It comes months after the manager of the French-based VS Compagnie, a major supplier of vegetable on European markets, Jean Louis Gruter, visited Liberia on LADA’S invitation to purchase from local farmers. Gruter was disappointed because Liberian produce apparently did not meet European standards.
This left local farmers frustrated, especially after SN Brussels had earlier promised to provide a discount on the transportation of all Liberian produce to Europe.
Patricia Gant, the founder of a local food processing enterprise, said the absence of a food standards institution for testing had cost local businesses dearly.
Gant said to get her products on shelves of supermarkets and African food stores in America, for example, she cannot use her own company’s brand. Rather, she uses labels of existing international businesses, which reduces the profit she makes.
“We have suffered a lot, especially [we the] manufacturers because people out of Liberia don’t trust our products,” Gant said.
The Liberia Business Association’s Secretary General Leelai Kpukuyou said if Liberian products are not seen as world-class standards, it makes them less acceptable and less attractive to investors and consumers.
Kpukuyou said to promote quality and standard in the Liberian business community, there must be standards.
“At the end of the day when this law is legislated, we are the one to be directly impacted,” she said.
According to her, Liberia has a huge diaspora population, but they cannot access Liberian-grown products because of the absence of the infrastructure. Such would allow food processors to determine the various nutrients contained in a product.
“So when you eat palm oil in America, it’s a product from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria or other countries; simply because they have the necessary infrastructure in place to label these things and package them in ways that it will seem a lot has gone into it. Why can’t Liberian do the same,” she said.
In most cases where Liberian food products are taken abroad, it is often family members taking them to their relatives.
As a member of a group established to draft and push for laws to establish better standards, the LIBA secretary general called on the legislature to prioritize the passage of the bill, noting that it would promote and protect Liberian-owned businesses, relative to manufacturing, production, and packaging.
With strong support from the Commerce Minister Axel Addy, the government of Liberia and LADA established a National Codex Technical Working Group comprising of the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, and Commerce and Industry. The National Standards Laboratory, the Liberia Chamber of Commerce, the Liberia Business Association, and the Liberia Marketing Association are also part of the working group, which has a goal of supporting the development of the food and standards legislation.
The technical working group has since developed a roadmap that led to the drafting of the first National Standard Act and National Food Law.
If these bills become law, they will create food safety programs, establish a food inspection service along with adequate laboratories, and promote food safety research.
Speaking at a stakeholder engagement last Thursday in Monrovia, LADA’s representative within the technical working group, Julius Saye Keh-nel, said validation of the draft policies would take place on June 28 and 29.
“We are on a good footing and hoping that this document would be completed next month,” he said.
He termed the initiative as a response to a national emergency and expressed hope that the legislature would act on it in a timely manner.
National Standards Laboratory Director Stephen Mambu and Bong County Technical College’s acting vice president for academic affairs, Frankie Cassell, and Attorney at Law, Phil Dixon, were also hired as local consultants to work with the technical working group in drafting the laws.
Making a presentation at the stakeholders’ engagement event, Mambu said the legislation of the two policies would help improve consumers’ safety assurance and standards of trade.
“This will also enforce compliance with the regional trade scheme which provides that before goods leave, for example, from Liberia, they must be tested and certified; and there must be a certificate of origin,” he noted. “So obviously, the National Standard Body will be responsible for rolling out such services.”
For his part, Dixon said the laws would afford Liberians the opportunity to improve the quality and have predictable contents of products on the market that are also internationally accepted.
He said already Liberia is rich in making different food kinds, but said the Food Law particularly will give safe limits of products in material, recipes for particular products and regulations for preparations.
“Otherwise, we run a risk of making food that only we can understand and eat,” he said.
“For instance, Liberians would want to export cassava leaves for example, but we don’t do labeling. So the person sees this green paste in the bag and it’s not labeled. So, many times our products are stopped from entering other countries.”
He added that if a seasoned fish, for example, is exported, people would want to know from the labels how much quantity of pepper and other ingredients makes up a seasoned fish.
He said the food law would also help to govern imports being made to the country.
“The food law is to create an agency that is going to make the day-to-day regulations that will cover different subject matters, and projects or create these standards in line with the standards authority that is going to be established as well,” he disclosed. He also added that “we can have a situation to be sure of the safety of our food.”
Addy, the commerce minister, has praised the resolve of the private sector in drafting the laws and promised to advocate for legislation.
He, however, encouraged the stakeholders to condense the two laws into a single bill because of the budgetary implications of setting up two institutions.
A member of the House’s Committee on Commerce and Industry, Rep. Samuel Cogar, welcomed the initiative and assured that his committee welcomed the recommendations.
Featured photo by Gbatemah Senah