PHL’s stiff meat trade rule stays

EXPORTERS to the Philippines, particularly those from the US, would have to contend with Manila’s stringent rules for frozen meat products for now, as the government stood pat on its decision to continue implementing its present two-tier meat-handling regime.

The National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS), which recommended Administrative Orders 5 and 6, Series of 2012, is adamant the policy should remain in force despite continued pressure from Washington to scrap the “discriminatory” policy and align its regulations with international standards.

“At the moment, yes,” NMIS Executive Director Ernesto S. Gonzalez told the BusinessMirror when asked whether the policies would remain despite such pressure.

Gonzalez explained that, while he is open for a review of the policies, he’d opt to take a protectionist stand.

“It is not a problem, we are open for review. But we have to control importation of frozen meat because we want to protect the local industry,” he said. “We have to protect also our local producers because imported meat is cheaper than locally produced one. The problem with the market is that we are constantly being pressured [by our trade partners].”

NMIS’s AO 5 outlines the regulations on handling chilled meat, frozen meat and thawed meat in the domestic market. The agency’s AO 6, meanwhile, provides the guidelines on the handling of newly slaughtered meat in the market.

Constant pressure

IN its 2018 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, the US Trade Representative (USTR) raised anew its concerns with the country’s two-tiered meat-handling system for the fourth straight year.

The USTR pointed out that under the present meat-handling regime tougher requirements are imposed on the sale of frozen meat, which are mostly imported, than on fresh meat, which came from animals raised domestically.

The two-tiered system, for the US, is discriminatory and must therefore be lifted. “The United States continues to press the Philippine government to remove unjustified requirements that treat frozen meat differently from fresh meat.”

However, prior to the release of the said report, the Washington delegation to the World Trade Organization (WTO) already raised the matter during the Philippines’s fifth Trade Policy Review (TPR) on March 26.

According to Washington’s statement during the TPR, which was obtained by the BusinessMirror, the US continues “to be very concerned about regulations that impose very rigorous requirements on certain kinds of meat that are primarily imported, but less stringent requirements on freshly slaughtered domestic meat.”

“Such regulations are inconsistent with well-established science on food safety,” the statement read.

In fact, this meat-handling issue is not new.

Washington has been pressing Manila to align its meat-handling measures with international standards and stop discriminating frozen meat since 2011.

‘AO 22’

THE US bristled because of AO 22, Series of 2010.

Issued by then-Agriculture chief Proceso J. Alcala, the order mandated the refrigeration of frozen meat products sold in the domestic market. Specifically, it orders frozen meat be placed in freezers with temperature not higher than 10 degrees Celsius.

Furthermore, AO 22 stipulated that thawed meat products that are sold in the retail markets should be “stored in refrigerated facilities and transported in vehicles that are able to maintain temperature not higher than 4 degrees Celsius.”

Washington trade officials aggressively pushed for the amendment of the administrative order until it was repealed by the DA in 2012, by virtue of the issuance of AOs 5 and 6.

One of the notable differences between AO 6 and AO 22 is the adjustments in the required temperature control in handling chilled, frozen and thawed meat products. This change was recommended by US meat exporters during the bilateral talks held by Washington and Manila.

Under AO 6, chilled meat products sold to market should not be frozen and shall maintain a temperature not higher than 10 degrees Celsius, while frozen meat should be stored, held and sold at a temperature not higher than zero degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, AO 6 recommended a maximum temperature level of 5 degrees Celsius in handling thawed meat.

However, despite the abovementioned changes, Washington continued to twist Manila’s arms to remove what it calls “discriminatory” guidelines in meat-handling regulations.

In fact, AO 22 of 2010 and AO 6 of 2012 were used by the US as grounds to block the Philippines’ bid to extend the latter’s quantitative restriction on rice in 2012.

‘Bullying’

PORK Producers Federation of the Philippines (ProPork) is in opposition of Washington’s stance on the two-tier meat-handling system, arguing that “it has been our food culture that we sell our meat fresh and within the time frame set by the NMIS.”

“I do not agree with the US view. It’s been like that for the past century that we sell newly slaughtered meat on room temperature,” ProPork President Edwin G. Chen told the BusinessMirror.

Under AO 5, newly slaughtered meat is not required to be refrigerated when sold in wet market as long as the product is sold within eight hours.

Furthermore, the meat should not “show any loss in its fresh-like character in terms of color, odor and texture, and shall show no sign of spoilage,” during the prescribed time frame, according to AO 5.

“Meat showing loss of original fresh-like character in less than eight hours shall be withdrawn from the sales area sooner,” Section 6.2.6 of AO 5 read.

AO 5 also mandates that “meat unsold after 8 hours even if maintaining its fresh-like quality and showing no signs of spoilage cannot be further sold.”

Chen said this kind of measure do not pose any food-safety issue, adding that “our forefathers have been doing this the past century.”

“Let the West do what they want, we have a different culture, so let’s have a mutual respect. Do not impose on our people what they want—that is bullying already according to our President [Duterte],” he said. “We Filipinos like fresh warm meat. We do not like frozen meat.”

Chen also argued that AO 6 is not discriminatory in nature as it “did not specifically target imported meat” and “also applies to local frozen meat.”

Gonzalez echoed Chen’s sentiment that there is no food-safety issue in regard to the measures under AO 5, adding that newly slaughtered meat sold in the market are gone in just a few hours.

“In just two hours’ time they will already be sold out,” Gonzalez said. “And in two hours, the quality of newly slaughtered meat would not deteriorate easily.”

Science-based

HOWEVER, the Meat Importers and Traders Association (Mita) questioned AOs 5 and 6, arguing that the said rules and regulations have “no scientific bases,” which put the Philippines in a “bad light.”

Citing the recommendation of Codex Code of Hygienic Practice for Meat (CAC/RCP 58-2005), Mita President Jesus C. Cham said newly slaughtered meat should be chilled “within two hours from slaughter.”

“Then it must be kept to chilled within the prescribed shelf life. In this manner, bacterial growth is controlled,” Cham told the BusinessMirror. “Consumer gets a better product and does not have to overcook the meat. The result is better nutrition and less energy for cooking.”

Cham called on the DA anew to scrap its discriminatory guidelines in handling frozen meat, adding that “their removal is long overdue.”

“These discriminatory orders should never have been implemented in the first place,” he said.

Cham said Mita is in view that “all meat, both domestic and imported, be placed under cold chain,” when sold in local markets.

The CAC/RCP 58-2005 recommends that the temperature of newly slaughtered meat should be “reduced as rapidly as possible” to avert formation of bacteria that are detrimental to human health.

However, it did not recommend specific temperature control, leaving such guideline to respective government policy-makers.

“Particular attention needs to be paid to temperature control, with temperatures of freshly slaughtered and dressed carcasses and other edible parts being reduced as rapidly as possible to a temperature that minimizes the growth of microorganisms or the formation of toxins that could constitute a risk to human health,” Section 9.7 of CAC/RCP 58-2005 reads.

“It is also important that the cold chain is not interrupted except to the minimal extent necessary for practical operations, e.g., handling during transportation,” it added.

The Mita chief said the implementation of AOs 5 and 6 have led to confiscation of frozen meat that is not placed under refrigeration despite no proven health issues of such handling.

“The order allowed the NMIS and LGUs to confiscate meat that is not placed under refrigeration despite the fact that no health issues have been proven in any way,” Cham said.

“The result was many vendors in the wet market could not fully engage in this business. Because there was less competition, and at the same time uncertainty and losses, naturally caused the vendor to raise the price, to the detriment of the consumer,” Cham added.

Defense

HOWEVER, Gonzalez said AOs 5 and 6 are based on science.

“In fact, frozen meat [is] easier to be contaminated compared to fresh ones. If there’s improper thawing, then bacteria like salmonella would easily multiply,” he said.

Alcala based the issuance of AOs 5 and 6 on recommendations by CAC/RCP 58-2005, which covers hygiene provisions from the time of live-animal production up to the point of retail sale.

In fact, CAC/RCP 58-2005 in itself recognizes that “traditional practices may result in departures from some of the recommendations presented in the code when meat is produced.”

Furthermore, AO 5 read that “there is no standard for newly slaughtered meat held at ambient temperature a specified period of time at Codex.”

“And considering that scientific information for the safe handling of this product is limited, current good practices that have given this product a historical record of safe consumption should determine the guidelines for its handling at meat markets, which the government should verify when feasible through scientific risk assessment,” Alcala said in AO 5.

According to AO 6, the Codex “recommends guidelines for the adequacy of facilities and equipment for the chilling and/or freezing and storage of meat” but “does not have specific standards for chilled, frozen and thawed foods.”

With the lack of such specific guidelines, AO 6 was based on existing regulations for “temperature control of frozen, thawed, and chilled foods and meat in certain developed countries,” such as US and Canada, according to Alcala.

“The Philippines as a precautionary measure has decided to base its regulations for the handling of chilled, frozen and thawed meats on the regulations of these countries,” Alcala said in AO 6.

The Codex Alimentarius, or commonly known as the food code, is a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practices and guidelines on food safety.

The Codex Alimentarius, which is a joint program by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, serves as a guiding principle for countries’ policies on food products, food production and food safety.

The food code has been established to create consumer trust on the safety and quality of the food products that they buy in the market.

Risk assessment

IN January 2013 the DA conducted a “Microbiological Risk Assessment of Newly Slaughtered and Frozen Meat in Philippine Wet Markets” to prove that AOs 5 and 6 are really based on science.

The study found out that “thawed meat is not the same meat as newly slaughtered meat.”

The study argued that “thawed meat provides a more conducive environment for pathogen growth,” as the former’s muscle fiber has “open structures created by freezing and thawing which strongly influence bacterial invasion.”

“As shown above, AO 5 and AO 6 cannot be considered discriminatory as the two types of meat are not the same and as shown in this study, differ in their potential to support pathogen multiplication,” it read.

The study also found out that “pathogens in newly slaughtered meat at the wet market reach the ‘level of concern’ at 10 to 12 hours from slaughter.”

“This is why AO 5 requires that newly slaughtered meat be held in the wet market for eight hours,” it read.

“The term ‘level of concern’ is indicative of the number of pathogens found to induce illness in volunteer feeding studies,” it added.

Meanwhile, “pathogens in frozen meat multiply slowly at the start of thawing” and multiply even faster than those in newly slaughtered meat once completely thawed, according to the study.

“Once meat is completely thawed, pathogens reach the ‘level of concern’ immediately, for Staphylococcus aureus and shortly thereafter, for salmonella,” it said.

“The above findings justify the requirement in AO 6 to hold frozen thawed meats at a maximum temperature of 5 degrees Celsius to prevent the rapid multiplication of pathogens on thawing,” it added.

The study said the recommended temperature of 5 degrees Celsius is also the required thawing temperature in the US and Canada.

“The provisions of AO 5 and AO 6 are based on what is practical and implementable in the country. The study validates the scientific basis used when these were established and further provides a quantitative microbiological interpretation of the requirements of the regulation,” the study concluded.

“AO 5 and AO 6 are necessary to ensure that pathogens in meats are controlled while in the wet market to protect the consumer from health risks,” it added.

Refrigeration infra

ON the other hand, the debate on the country’s two-tiered meat-handling system opened up a bigger issue of the sector: a proper refrigeration infrastructure.

Cham recommended that the removal of AOs 5 and 6 “should be coupled with another program to bring refrigeration infrastructure into the retail sector of the country, particularly into the wet market.”

“This will bring modernization into the meat trade. Its establishment will prepare our country for greater participation in the global meat market,” he explained.

The Mita chief said the establishment of this refrigeration infrastructure would kick-start by first allowing imported meat to be “merchandised under ambient conditions.”

“Retailers must be incentivized to invest in cold chain, especially the LGU who owns and manages the wet market,” Cham said.

“Once we reach a point where there are sufficient refrigeration in the marketplace, the NMIS can begin to make refrigeration mandatory,” Cham added.

Cham added that “consumers must be educated on the benefits of keeping refrigeration as a method of preserving quality and safety not just of fresh meat but also of cooked food.”

“It would be a phased implementation. First make refrigeration optional for all meat. Next, incentivize placing meat under refrigeration. All the while educating consumers on its benefits,” he said.

The NMIS chief is cognizant of this problem and admitted that the country’s wet markets are “not ready” for a totally refrigerated environment.

“The wet markets are not ready yet. For one, we have confiscated a lot of imported meat in wet markets because of improper handling,” Gonzalez said.

“The right thing should be is that there are cold-storage facilities in markets so that thawing of forzen meat would be correct. But as of now, we are not really capable of such,” Gonzalez added.

Gonzalez disclosed that one of the programs of the attached agency of the DA is to establish more refrigeration systems in wet markets across the country.

“Actually we are doing something to improve our wet markets by putting freezers so that there would be proper handling of frozen meat,” he said.

“We are working closely with local government units to improve wet markets and the establishment of cold-storage facilities,” he added.

Image credits: Grigv ovan | Dreamstime.com, Grigvovan | Dreamstime.com

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