Manufacturers, exporters, and trade experts are calling on Asia-Pacific economies to standardize and harmonize packaging and labeling requirements, saying this will greatly benefit the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that comprise the bulk of businesses in the region.
Speaking at a virtual conference, Kathleen Ann Ocampo, marketing director of RPO Fine Foods Corporation, a Filipino firm exporting peanuts, cashew nuts and garlic chips, said SMEs encounter many packaging challenges that hamper their growth and recovery, foremost of them the varying international standards and regulations in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
“Philippine SMEs still need a lot of assistance from both the government and private organizations to overcome the packaging and labeling challenges,” she said. “Our wish [is] to have aligned domestic labeling and packaging regulations with the international standards to be able to export our products globally.”
Dominic Milan, chief sales officer of Philippine startup 1Export, said that if packaging requirements can be harmonized, then manufacturers can start producing products that are compliant with both local and international market requirements.
Khemraj Ramful, a senior adviser with the International Trade Centre (ITC), pointed out that SMEs are always the most affected by any changes in technical requirements because they don’t have the economies of scale and easy access to research and development that large firms have.
Noting that one of the provisions of the World Trade Organization’s trade facilitation agreement is to base technical regulations on international standards, he urged countries in APEC to adopt Codex Alimentarius and ISO standards in their policies.
The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and other recommendations published by the Food and Agriculture Organization relating to food, food production, food labeling, and food safety.
ISO standards are a set of internationally recognized guidelines that offer guidance, coordination, simplification and unification of criteria to companies and organizations in order to reduce costs and increase effectiveness.
Ramful added that many countries have not updated their regulations to align with new global standards. Moreover, they have limited expertise to help MSMEs in package and label design and use of sustainable packaging materials. They also have inadequate technical infrastructure to develop testing and certification capabilities.
He urged APEC to promote the harmonization of technical regulations and create a pool of regional packaging experts to help SMEs comply with new laws. He also suggested more aid to MSMEs by way of improving access to finance and research and development.
Anna Teo, co-founder and group CEO of Hernan Corporation Sdn Bhd, an exporter of durian products based in Malaysia, suggested forming a committee or center to which exporters can direct their questions, as SMEs are sometimes forced to find information from unreliable or unconfirmed sources.
She also agreed about the need to standardize, such as the different terms for the same ingredients, to minimize the exportation hardships of SMEs.
In addition, the panelists and speakers gave tips on how to prevent export products from getting rejected due to labeling or packaging reasons.
Teo stressed the importance of working with importers or distributors to obtain the correct information, particularly on nutritional information, ingredients list and packaging information such as format, positioning, language, barcode, and importer details.
She likewise advised taking the time to find out if the target market implements a pre-registration process, in which the exporter’s products, including packaging information and actual samples, must be registered in the system and be approved prior to importation.
Milan and Ocampo both underscored the need to comply fully with all of the regulations, such as those on labeling format and the use of biodegradable and food-grade materials. SMEs should also make sure they use the requisite languages in the importing country, which could be up to five in some markets.
Ocampo further shared that RPO Fine Foods constantly modifies and upgrades its brand packaging design. Its current packaging has been updated to a modern and minimalist look and dropped PVC bottles in favor of PEP bottles.
She said her company also reviews and monitors market trends in packaging through exposure to international trade fairs with the help of the Department of Trade and Industry.
During the discussions, the participants identified as well the other challenges, including the high minimum order quantity required to purchase packaging supplies and the lack of access to finance, which discourages the acquisition of equipment and development of eco-friendly packaging materials.