February 24, 2021

AOAC INTERNATIONAL and the African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a strategic partnership to advance food safety and security in Africa.

ARSO is Africa’s intergovernmental standards body, formed in 1977 by the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Its mandate is to develop tools for standards development, standards harmonization and implementation to enhance Africa’s internal trading capacity, increase Africa’s product and service competitiveness globally, and uplift the welfare of African consumers. It also serves as a standardization forum for future prospects in international trade referencing.

ARSO is a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreement and is an active observer member of the TBT Committee in its work toward harmonization, equivalence and mutual recognition arrangements for agriculture and food products.

Contaminated food continues to cause numerous devastating outbreaks in the African region, and food safety related problems still account for almost 2,000 fatalities on the continent daily. The World Health Organization reports that foodborne hazards are responsible for 137,000 deaths and 91 million acute illnesses in Africa every year, mostly affecting children under the age of five.

The 2018 formation of the Intra-African Continental Free Trade area, which includes 54 of the 55 African Union nations and requires members to remove tariffs from 90 percent of goods, is bringing a rapid increase in trade of food. But it is also creating challenges due to enormous disparities in food testing infrastructure. In some countries, labs are well equipped, using advanced techniques and international official reference methods. In others, labs are struggling to achieve basic proficiency.

While increased trade and closer economic cooperation between developing countries represent a considerable potential for development, realizing this potential represents a major challenge especially in terms of an effective continental standardization infrastructure.

At the inaugural AOAC Sub-Saharan Africa Section meeting in South Africa in 2018, recommendations included development and harmonization of analytical methods, prioritizing validated analytical methods for traditional African foods, public-private dialog on food safety capacity building, and collaboration with regional stakeholders such as ARSO.

Since then, the Section has established itself as a key player in the region and has been invited to collaborate with numerous pan-African quality infrastructure organizations such as ARSO and the Intra-African Metrology System. These organizations see AOAC playing a critical role in providing technical and scientific advice on analytical testing standards, especially since for many of the local food commodities now being traded beyond national borders, there are no international official methods validated for many of those matrices. The Memorandum of Understanding between AOAC and ARSO is a significant step to realizing these goals. The current agreement is valid for 5 years.

Cooperation between the two organizations will include areas such as conformity assessment regimes in traditional African foods; capacity building; peer reviews and idea exchange; and development and harmonization of standards in foods and beverages, dietary supplements, and infant formula, industrial chemicals and fertilizers.

The agreement also envisions development or expansion of laboratory proficiency testing to include regionally specific commodities and their reference materials. In addition to jointly promoting awareness among policy makers and governments on the need for standardization such as Performance Tested Methods and infrastructure, the agreement establishes a forum for joint public-private high-level dialog including webinars and training.