Bangladesh could grow its agricultural and food product exports tenfold and earn $13 billion per year by issuing Fit for Human Consumption certificates, but there is a catch.
There is no such organisation here that can issue this certificate.
No government agency even has information on what type of quality assurance is needed for which country. Moreover, there is no accredited lab here that can issue certificates by ensuring international standards.
Bangladesh has paid dearly for this. Several countries have stopped importing various products from here as those were exported without proper quality assurance and the presence of harmful bacteria, virus and heavy metal was detected.
Saudi Arabia has stopped importing freshwater fish due to the presence of pork bones and chicken droppings in fish feed while the European Union is no longer importing betel. Similarly, Russia has halted the import of potato, and China that of crab and cuchia.
As a result, even though Bangladesh is one of the top countries in terms of producing various agricultural and food products, including vegetables and fish, it remains at the bottom of the list of exporting countries. The size of the annual export market is about $1,600 billion but Bangladesh's share is a mere 0.06%.
Another possible cause for concern lies ahead. Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh's second-largest buyer of agricultural and food items, is set to impose new conditions on imports of such products from July. The lack of quality labs and the failure to issue certificates as per their new conditions could jeopardise exports.
In the last two fiscal years, exports of agricultural and food products to the Middle Eastern country amounted to $163 million and $146 million respectively.
The Department of Agricultural Extension, the Department of Fisheries, and the Department of Livestock Services issue certificates for the export of agricultural goods, fish, and meat and animal products respectively. The Islamic Foundation issues halal certificates for exporting products to the Middle East while Bangladesh Standards & Testing Institution (BSTI) certifies 181 products at the production level according to Bangladeshi standards.
But none of these organisations has the capacity to issue Fit for Human Consumption certificates as per the parameters set by importers.
Against this backdrop, Bangladesh Trade and Tariff Commission has recommended setting up a health certification authority comprising representatives of various quality assurance agencies and international standard accredited labs to prevent wastage of agricultural products, ensure fair prices, and utilise the massive export potential.
Abdul Bari, convener of the health certificate opinion committee and a member of the tariff commission, told The Business Standard, "We have submitted a report to the commerce ministry with recommendations on how to grow agricultural and food item exports by issuing internationally accepted health certificates."
He said India's export promotion council issues such certificates, which are accepted by various countries.
In the report submitted to the ministry last week, the tariff commission said agricultural and food item exports would increase almost 10 times if Bangladesh could capture only 0.5% of the world market by ensuring product quality and issuing health certificates accepted by the importing countries.
In the last three fiscal years, Bangladesh exported agricultural and food products worth $1.3 billion on average. At present, such products are exported to 130 countries.
Bangladesh mainly exports crustacean, shrimp, crab, frozen fish, dry fish, vegetable, fruit, aromatic rice, spice powder, dry food, fruit juice, tea, soybean and mustard oil, molasses, and sesame.
Bangladesh incapable to issue health certificates
Bangladesh has no updated information on the product quality parameters set by the importing countries, the tariff commission report said.
Many countries demand a two-stage institutional certification. One will issue quality test certificates and the other will provide health certificates, but there is no such system in Bangladesh.
As a result, Square Group and Pran-RFL Group use their pads to make the Fit for Human Consumption declaration when exporting agriculture and food products, the report said.
It said the livestock department takes 18-21 days to issue certificates for ghee, lachchi, rasmalai, sweetmeat, duck feather, cow and buffalo ear, omasum, gelatin, one-day-old chicken, beef and poultry meat, and frozen chicken. Although the Department of Fisheries can issue certificates for frozen fish within two to three days, those remain valid for 15 days.
BSTI certifies 181 products at the production level, and it takes 10-12 days to get certificates for these products. However, various countries do not accept BSTI certificates. India accepts BSTI certifications for 21 products.
The European Union has sent back turmeric powder produced by a BSTI-certified company. Bangladesh Safe Food Authority issues quality certificates for exportable food products, but it does not have a lab.
Moreover, many processed and exportable food products, including dry fish, chutney, and sesame oil, are not on the BSTI list. The tariff commission in the report asked BSTI to include more agricultural and food products in its certification list.
Initiatives to form health certificate authority
The tariff commission said Bangladesh needs an umbrella organisation comprising certificate issuing agencies to simplify the certification process as quality tests cannot be performed by a single organisation.
The commerce ministry is going to set up an authority to harness the potential of agriculture and food product exports. Until then, the Export Promotion Bureau will issue health certificates for export items. The bureau has already drafted the standard operating procedure (SOP) in this regard and sent it to the commerce ministry.
The proposed health certification authority will have its own capacity for inspection and issuing certificates. The quality assurance agencies under it will examine the various parameters of the products and make recommendations to the authority. The authority will issue Fit for Human Consumption certificates as per certification standards in different countries.
Speaking about such an authority, Commerce Secretary Md Jafar Uddin recently told The Business Standard, "Many countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia, are getting a big pie by exporting agricultural and food products, but Bangladesh's earnings from this sector remain insignificant.
"Bangladesh is going to graduate to a developing country riding on only readymade garment exports. Dependence on a single product is risky for an economy. So, the decision to set up a quality assessment body is being made as part of various initiatives taken by the commerce ministry to diversify the export basket."
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at Centre for Policy Dialogue, said Bangladesh is being transformed into a country of surplus agricultural products.
Therefore, it is very important to form an authority to increase the exports of agricultural and food products, he said.
Moazzem said the proposed authority must have international standard labs and expert manpower.
"If such an authority is established and managed with global certification agencies on a public-private partnership basis, the health certificates issued by it will be accepted abroad," he added.
Abdus Sattar Mandal, former vice-chancellor of Bangladesh Agricultural University and a former member of the Planning Commission, told The Business Standard it is necessary to ensure good agricultural practice at the production stage in order to harness the huge export potential of agriculture and food products.
It is necessary to achieve the capacity to issue certificates at the export stage as per the demand of the importing countries by performing tests in international standard labs, he said.
"Foreign buyers now want to know the quality of water used in agriculture. Therefore, certifications of a competent authority are required to increase exports," added Mandal.
Bangladesh Agro-Processors Association President AFM Fakhrul Islam Munshi said they were facing problems in exporting agricultural and food products due to a lack of world-class health certification system.
He said there was no alternative but to issue certificates by setting up separate labs to ensure quality.