Assurance system boosts Namibian fish exports

Despite tightening of quality and safety requirements in major import markets, fish and fishery products have continued to be a significant contributor to Namibia’s exports. Image credit: Erongo.com.na

Despite tightening of quality and safety requirements in major import markets, fish and fishery products have continued to be a significant contributor to Namibia’s exports, thanks in part to a strong food safety and quality assurance system built in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

The system incorporates nuclear science into quality tests for food and water safety and has allowed the country to make significant progress toward becoming self-reliant in carrying out these tests.

“Namibia’s fish and aquaculture sector has strong national, regional and international markets. To reach these markets, we needed to first have assurances in place that our products are safe and meet various regulatory requirements,” says Paloma Ellitson, general manager of Testing and Inspection at Namibian Standards Institution (NSI), which falls under the country’s Ministry of Industrialisation and Trade. Fish and fishery products make up a quarter of the country’s total exports.

Before trading in fish and fishery products, countries have to certify that export bound products are safe, including being free from heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. These inorganic contaminants can be introduced through industrial activities that can harm sea life and make fishery and aquaculture products, like seafood, unsafe for human consumption.

“Through our collaborative efforts with the IAEA and FAO, we now have more advanced equipment, trained staff and expanded services, so fishery and aquaculture products can be tested and certified nationally, with a quicker turnaround time, and be moved faster to meet demand while preserving the safety and quality of our products,” says Ellitson.

Namibia’s 1500km of coastline is home to the Benguela Current System, one of the most productive ocean areas in the world. The nutrient-rich waters of this large, biodiverse ecosystem are teaming with life that supplies fish and fishery products, such as hake, mackerel, crabs and lobster, to local and international markets. The sector is also a significant source of national employment.

Scientists at NSI’s testing laboratory and other national institutes such as the Agro-Marketing and Trade Agency and the Central Veterinary Laboratory have worked with the IAEA and the FAO for years to build and strengthen the country’s food and water safety and quality assurance system. This collaborative work, primarily through the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation programme, has involved training courses, equipment and consumables procurement, expert advice, fellowships at the IAEA and other collaborating laboratories, as well as participation in IAEA-coordinated international research.

NSI used to outsource tests for heavy metals and for other food safety tests of fishery products to labs in other countries, says Ellitson, adding that “we only had one machine per test. If a machine went down, which happened often, it meant downtimes of up to six months and required outsourcing. Not only was it more expensive, but it also meant fishery products took longer to certify and ship, leading to longer storage times.”

Namibia is now doing its own tests on various commodities, including fish and fishery products. It uses nuclear techniques such as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and atomic absorption spectrometry, as well as other techniques to detect, measure and ensure products are free from contaminants including heavy metals, select pesticide residues and mycotoxins. Over 300 samples from shellfish and fishing companies have been tested on average each year by NSI’s testing laboratory since 2018. This has contributed to exports continuing to be accepted by international markets.

The country’s strengthened testing and inspection capabilities on food safety and quality helped it to meet the required standards and regulations to facilitate exports to the European Union. In 2019, fish and fishery products made up over 30% of EU imports from Namibia.

Namibia is currently listed as a third-country exporter of fish and fishery products to the EU.  To receive this designation, the country has had to ensure its testing and inspection services can reliably meet stringent safety and quality standards. A key part of providing that assurance is also laboratory accreditation.

“We need safe food on the market and laboratory accreditation provides third-party assurance that the laboratory’s test results are trustworthy and that the products are safe,” explains Ellitson. Accreditation is a formal recognition received after an external accreditation body evaluates and confirms a laboratory’s technical competence to perform specific types of tests and measurements.

The NSI testing laboratory’s accreditation for food safety and quality test methods was broadened and extended after improving its capacities through the IAEA and FAO’s support. It has maintained its accreditation since 2012 and continues to participate in five proficiency testing schemes each year with other international laboratories to ensure it effectively covers all accreditation and regulatory aspects.

The article was published by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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