ABU DHABI // The region needs a single body to co-ordinate and improve the safety and quality of food, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says.
John Lupien, a former director of the FAO's food and nutrition division in Rome, said on Monday that a Middle East network for food science and technology would help to improve food safety and quality.
"There is no regional body in the Middle East and North Africa [Mena] right now and, as every country has different rules and laws, that really is a huge impediment to trade and food safety," said Mr Lupien.
He was speaking at the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (International Food Industry Exhibition), being held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre this week alongside the Emirates International Date Palm Festival.
Mr Lupien said the idea to set up a regional grouping for the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFOST) was raised by the FAO at a conference on regional agro-industries for the Mena region in Beirut last week.
There are already regional groups in western Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.
"It is an essential component of developing successful agro-industries in the Mena region," Mr Lupien said.
"There is a lack of uniformity in food laws and regulations between these regional countries - they should have the same rules."
At the moment, he said, it is easier for the UAE to trade food with Vietnam than with a neighbouring country such as Lebanon.
A Mena grouping of the IUFOST would allow increased cooperation between Middle East countries, allowing them to exchange valuable information on food safety and their own experiences.
"This could improve information sharing, food-trade training and therefore food safety and quality in the region," Mr Lupien said.
"It could be implemented immediately but we hope it is at least planned for the near future, and we won't give up on it."
With the UAE importing about 85 per cent of its food, he believes it would be beneficial for it to take part in such an association.
Such a move would be welcomed by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, said Mohammed Al Reyaysa, its communications director.
Although the UAE has already set up an association, it would support the idea of a regional body.
"We are open to it," Mr Al Reyaysa said. "More communication could help improve the safety of food and we are open to that."
The UAE's experience in food inspections could also benefit neighbouring countries, Mr Lupien said.
"We have six to seven inspections of retail shops a day, and five to six inspections of catering companies and restaurants daily," said Tariq Al Tenaji, the authority's lead inspector.
"Sharing information with countries from the same region will have a much bigger impact than if they were from another region, like the US for example," Mr Al Tenaji said.
"It's worthwhile to get people to talk to each other because they will be able to start controlling problems they face in a better manner."
Organised by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and Turret Media, the International Food Industry Exhibition hosted 500 exhibitors from 40 countries including China, France, Tunisia and Turkey.
The trade show, which ends today, has included panel debates, presentations and expert workshops on food retail, food prices, food safety and security. The date palm festival will continue until Saturday.