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Testing time for the frozen food sector
Shahiduzzaman Khan

          BANGLADESH government has made testing of the prawn bodies mandatory before their shipment to the European Union (EU) countries. The decision came following the rejection of nearly 25 shrimp consignments worth about Tk 500 million after the European Commission's (EC) detection of the harmful antibiotic 'Nitro Furan' in prawn bodies over the past seven months.
The country's fishery department is expected to take firm action against the exporters, who are sending shrimp consignments without performing the 'Nitro Furan' test. According to the EU directives, the exporters are required to send their shrimps to Singapore for laboratory test, but some exporters do not follow such guideline.
Allegations have it that some unscrupulous exporters with the support of buyers had been sending shrimp consignments without the prescribed test. Such unscrupulous businessmen are tarnishing the country's image to the EU buyers. The fishery department said the exporters should be more serious about the 'Nitro Furan' test as the EU Food and Veterinary Office is strict about their food safety issues. The government has also decided to initiate some short-term and long-term programmes including testing of 100 per cent prawn before export, activation of district level task force committee, monitoring of hatcheries and speed up tractability.
The frozen food exporters also expect to bring the 'Nitro Furan' detecting machine by next month as per the EU guidelines. The frozen prawn covers 45 per cent of the total exported shrimp to the EU countries. Among the frozen shrimps, the sweet water prawn is vulnerable to the presence of antibiotic.
Last year, the number of rejected consignments from the EU was 17 to 18 compared to that of the 25 consignments in the last seven months this year. The number of the rejected consignments has marked a significant rise this year, much to the annoyance of the EU buyers. The country has exported frozen shrimp and fish worth Tk 32.50 billion to the EU member countries last fiscal, which surpassed all previous records of frozen food export.
The country's 50 hatcheries produce about 5.0 billion shrimp larvae, which are enough to meet the target of production by 2008. The exporters said they were taking steps to increase shrimp production through optimum utilisation of the processing capacity. They are reported to have been also exploring new markets.
The EC, in an earlier report, pointed out some major deficiencies in the country's fish and shrimp processing labs as roadblock to further exports to the European countries. It found lack of modern equipment, competent authorities and absence of central monitoring units as major obstacles to further export to its member countries. The EU head of delegation stressed the need for urgent actions to improve the performance of the laboratories and the reliability of their results. Currently, out of 130 shrimp processing plants, the EU had approved 58 for shipping seafood to its markets. The EU imports 50 per cent of frozen shrimp and fish from the country.
Due to a favourable weather, the shrimp production has marked a significant rise, which can cope with the growing demand in the international market. Owners of a number of fishery companies in Khulna were reported to have been facing a setback to meet the export deadlines and honour the agreements reached with the international buyers due to delays in certification of consignments. Frozen foods exporters alleged that usually it requires a maximum of five days to examine sample of each consignment, but the fish inspection and quality control (FIQC) labs here are taking 20 to 25 days for each. A huge number of consignments could not be shipped due to absence of quality control certificates.
The FIQC labs of the country are not well equipped and the authority was advised to use the labs of shrimp exporting companies. Scarcity of manpower and machinery in the FIQC lab are hindering the smooth export of shrimp during the peak season. Earlier, the frozen food exporters suggested using their upgraded and well-equipped labs and recognising those labs to issue quality-monitoring certificates, but they did not receive any positive response from the government.
After ready-made garments (RMG) sector, country's frozen food sector remains an area that hold out immense potentials. With a challenging export target of $1.5 billion a year, the sector can be easily the country's one of the key foreign exchange earners in 2008 and beyond. The Bangladesh Frozen Food Exporters' Association (BFFEA) has submitted a project concept paper earlier to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, highlighting the key elements that determine the possibilities of earning $1.5 billion per annum by the year 2008.
In the global market where aquaculture operates, Bangladesh is earning a substantial amount of foreign exchange. Natural sources of shrimp, abundant agricultural land, inexpensive labour, proximity of the ports etc., could play a greater role in raising earning from this sector.
According to the 'Vision 2008' charted out by the BFFEA, frozen food worth $1.5 billion would be exported by 2008 through increasing shrimp production, utilising the processing capacity of the plants to the fullest extent and marketing vigorously across the globe. An action plan has been developed to achieve target of producing 250,000 tonnes of raw shrimp from 230,000 hectares of land by introducing modern and eco-friendly culture technologies.
A massive development strategy is, thus, needed to develop infrastructure in and around present shrimp farming areas to be followed by their proper implementation and intense monitoring. An alliance of stakeholders in the frozen food sector is needed to achieve the overall target of earning the projected amount as envisaged in the plan. The Vision 2008 has laid stress on reopening of the factories which are not in operation, modernisation and refurbishing of age-old plants by refinancing and soft-term loans.
An alliance of stakeholders in the frozen food sector is needed to achieve the overall target of earning the projected amount as envisaged in the plan. The Vision 2008 has laid stress on reopening of the factories which are not in operation, modernisation and refurbishing of age-old plants by refinancing and soft-term loans.
Besides, setting up of feed mills is also highlighted on the agenda of Vision 2008 as presently the sector depends mainly on imported shrimp feed which is expensive and runs the risk of contamination. In order to optimise the export potentials, the plan also stipulates the opening of new marketing and information centres in Tokyo, New York, Brussels, Sydney and Toronto to collect market information and create new markets for frozen foods from Bangladesh.
The provisions are there for upgradation of existing laboratory facility, training of technicians and introduction of an internationally accepted certification and a reference laboratory to test and certify the product quality. To gain efficiency at all levels - from field to export - the proposed plan envisages establishment of an institute for human resources development. Besides imparting training to the workforce, the institute can enhance the prestige of the sector on a global basis. The plan gives a broad hint that the country's 50 hatcheries are producing 50 million shrimp larvae in a year which is enough to culture shrimp and earn the projected money.
While the prospects of frozen food sector look good, both the government and the private sector should take an integrated approach to turn the 'Vision 2008' into a reality. Much of the country's development efforts depend on how the stakeholders make endeavours to address the crux of the problems and solve those, well ahead of time.


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