The Arab region has one of the lowest levels of intraregional trade in food and agricultural commodities, despite preferential market access provided under the Pan Arab Free Trade Agreement. Nearly 54 percent of non-tariff measures in the Arab region are mainly related to technical barriers to trade (TBT) and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, contributing to impediments in intraregional trade, especially for food and agricultural products.

Although several countries in the Arab region have taken steps to upgrade their food safety systems, the capacity and efficiency of many countries must still be enhanced to ensure an adequate oversight for locally produced and imported food, as well as to demonstrate compliance with food standards in export markets.

In efforts to address this challenge, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization is implementing the Arab Food Safety Initiative for Trade Facilitation, known as the “SAFE Initiative.” In a nutshell, the SAFE Initiative is a regional initiative led by the League of Arab States and its specialized agencies: the Arab Industrial Development and Mining Organization and the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development.  It is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The key objective of the SAFE Initiative is to facilitate regional trade in food/agri-based products and improved integration through strengthening the regional coordination and harmonization mechanisms on conformity assessment and Food Safety systems following international best practices (TBT and SPS).

To that end, a key vehicle was identified: setting up a regional approach for common food safety standards development, based on robust risk assessments and taking into account the requirements of the Arab region. Foundational initiatives were begun and cover a broad spectrum of food safety interventions including the enhancement of competencies in risk assessment, the development of an Arab Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, and the development of common inspection certificates and associated protocols for food imports/exports in the Arab region. Through the creation of the Arab Taskforce on Food Safety, SAFE is also targeting the establishment of a sustainable mechanism for coordination of food safety measures in the Arab region.  

For more information on the SAFE Initiative, please visit the official SAFE website as well as the SAFE Facebook and Twitter pages.

Omar Sabry is a junior consultant at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Food Systems and Nutrition Division, Agri-Business Development Department.