IN A NUTSHELL
There has been an increasing appreciation and importance placed on cold storage and transport refrigeration of late, especially from the perspective of government entities. This is further compounded by initiatives, such as the UAE Food Bank and the Food Watch programme, the success of which depends on a strong food safety and quality assurance (FSQA) infrastructure. Keeping in mind that cold chain will play a vital role in helping the UAE and the GCC region meet the objectives of food hygiene, key players within the industry are advocating areas of improvement that must be addressed in order to collectively raise standards within the industry.
In a departure from previous editions of the event, the 8th edition of the Food Chain conference focused on the increasingly important role of transport refrigeration and cold storage facilities in society. The twin aspects of the cold chain are critical parameters in helping the country meet its desired objectives with regard to food safety, in particular, and public health, in general. The event was held on April 5, in Dubai, and drew the participation of key figures in the cold chain, such as manufacturers of equipment and reefer trailers, logistics providers and hypermarket chains. It also provided a platform for government representatives from Dubai, Ajman and Sharjah to share FSQA projects and initiatives currently underway in their respective municipalities.
The importance of cold chain was especially underlined by two major initiatives within the UAE: The UAE Food Bank initiative, launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, as well as Dubai Municipality’s soon-to-be-launched Food Watch programme.
The success of both the programmes is dependent on a robust food safety and quality assurance (FSQA) framework, and Dubai Municipality has expressed its commitment to implement a proper infrastructure that will ensure that the objectives of the initiative will be met in the most efficient manner possible.
“The UAE Food Bank will be integrated with every dimension of food safety,” said Noura Abdulla Al Shamsi, Head of Permits and Applied Nutrition Section, Food Safety Department, Dubai Municipality. “For example, many have food in their warehouses with a shelf life that will expire in two or three months. We don’t want that to be wasted, so it will be collected by approved companies under supervision of municipality and distributed to charity.” Al Shamsi emphasised that the approved companies will be assessed based on their ability to maintain good temperature and condition of the product throughout the cold chain process, during its transportation from the warehouse to the UAE Food Bank.
Dubai Municipality has expressed its keenness on using smart technology in its campaigns, and Al Shamsi said that the government body is using a software-based approach to keep track of food at various points along the chain. The emphasis on technology was further reinforced by Bobby Krishna, Food Safety Specialist – Food Control Department, Dubai Municipality, who looks towards smart platforms and tracking systems to ensure food safety. In his words, manufacturers, wholesalers and warehouses have different problems and a lack of transparency can lead to complacency or malpractice with regard to food that has undergone thermal abuse. “There are no provisions to track it,” he said. “It could be back in the market in some other
form and reprocessed without control. [There are] some enablers to make food a bit more visible… The better the food safety controls, the lesser the problem and the lesser the food wastage. What you don’t want is bad food going to people, in any form.”
LAYERS OF COST
In Sharjah, the issue of food safety is being addressed in Sharjah Municipality through licensing. Ammar Hosien, Senior Inspector, Sharjah Municipality, said: “We have our criteria and specifications on this issue. After licensing, we have monitoring and routine inspection. We also have the Sharjah Food
Safety Program. We applied training for all food handlers, including stores and trading companies. Any food handler in Sharjah should be under the Sharjah Food Safety Program from [initial] training to upgrading along with classic and evolving HACCP [requirements].”
Though the commitment of the emirates towards ensuring food safety is commendable, the individual requirements of each emirate do indeed
add layers of cost among logistics providers and food companies. Abdulla Abdrulrazaq Al Tamimi, Head of Public Health, Municipality and Planning Department, Ajman Municipality, admitted that the government body follows its own regulation within Ajman, through its licensing framework, under the Ajman Public Health Program. However, he shared that there has been talk of potentially coming up with a more unified federal regulation. “I do agree we are adding some cost to the business sector,” he said, “but as a member of the UAE Food Safety National Committee, we are discussing this issue from time to time. We are trying to find a way to support the businesses to not have multiple payments in each emirate, but we need to discuss and get approval from all emirates. We cannot start in Ajman unless our neighbours are asking. If we can reach a point where all emirates are agreeing on the same concept, where any vehicle with a license in Ajman can go to other emirates with no fees, then we will.”
THE OTHER SIDE
Manufacturers and logistics providers are eager for a federalised approach to help improve their margins. However, there are also other areas of concern that they are looking to address as part of their collective efforts to improve their operations as well as raise standards within the industry.
Rodrigue Nacouzi, CEO and Founder, Transcorp International, emphasised the need for quality training, which he said, is lacking within the industry. “Currently, the trainings that we abide by don’t really apply on the real job of the drivers, it’s just basic hygiene,” he said. “This is why the transporters should have their own internal training, and it should be based on realities and [real] life scenarios.” Nacouzi said that Transcorp is working closely with Dubai Municipality for more focused training of handlers to address the issue of cross-contamination, “If the driver is not aware of what type of goods he is transporting it will be a cross-contamination issue for the food,” he said. With regard to training, Nacouzi added that education should go as far as empowering drivers to refuse such breaches, which can only be done by promoting greater awareness among employees.
Paul McGarrigle, Strategic Account Manager, Thermo King, agreed with the shortcomings with regard to training drivers to identify vital issues, such as door seals. However, he cited another aspect that can help reduce breaks within the cold chain – a system of tracking actions. “I think a vital part that is not being disclosed here is the technology and innovation we can use today to eliminate the driver from any decision-making or any reporting,” he said. He advocated that implementing track-and-trace systems for set points accessible to distribution and logistics managers, would ensure that the burden to report breaches in the cold chain no longer lies solely on the driver. He said that this sort of self-legislation technology can eliminate or, at the very least, reduce human error, especially in light of the sub-par training standards in the region.
While attention needs to be riveted on drivers of transport refrigeration vehicles, there is equal need to focus on retailers within the chain. Kiran M. B., Commercial Manager for Frigo, Gorica Industries, was of the view that there should be greater transparency among retailers within the cold chain with regard to how products are being handled, or else there is a back-and-forth on who’s responsible for thermal abuse, which often falls on the producer citing temperature monitoring as the ideal solution.
In a bid to move away from the issue of a potential blame game within the industry, Ghaleb Abusaa, CEO, GASO, provided a comprehensive perspective citing the points of view of the end users, who want the best food at the lowest price; the producer, who wants to ensure profit and the dealer, who cannot lower cost. “It’s a chain of responsibility,” he said. “In my opinion, the main responsibility goes to the legislation standards, but what is more important is the implementation, taking into consideration all factors…. The complete chain has to underlined, and in my opinion, it is more on the side of the government and on the side of the consumer to force all the producers and other parties in the chain to follow the standards.” Abusaa recommended developing a minimum and maximum standard as well as providing incentives. The minimum standards will ensure the safety of the food, and for those who are looking to implement more advanced standards, they can be rewarded for going above and beyond the requirements, making it a potentially competitive advantage.