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Q&A With Alex Samel: Driving Food Safety and Trade in Egypt
In this Q&A, we speak with food safety and trade expert Alex Samel. He shares how the USDA TAIB program is transforming food standards in Egypt and improving conditions for agricultural trade.
Banner photo caption: The TAIB team, NFSA staff, and NFSA Chairman gather together for a group photo after the FD-170 training in Egypt. 

Alex Samel is the Chief of Party of the USDA Transforming the Assessment and Inspection of Food Businesses in Egypt (TAIB) project. Mr. Samel also provides technical expertise as the Senior Food Advisor for Food Safety and Trade for the USAID Trade Reform and Development in Egypt (TRADE) project. Prior to working in Egypt, Mr. Samel lived in Georgia, working to expand market access and sales for Georgian agribusinesses and advising their National Food Agency on an integrated approach to mitigating agriculture losses from the invasive brown marmorated stink bug.

Tell us about your work on the TAIB program.

The TAIB project is a first-of-its-kind international development program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food for Progress Office. We work directly with Egypt’s newly established National Food Safety Authority (NFSA) to strengthen their capabilities to increase agriculture trade. TAIB presents an opportunity for expanded impact because we are working with a nascent food regulator that is also the United States’ largest agriculture trading partner in Africa. There are not many opportunities to work with an emerging food regulator, let alone with a country as large as Egypt. We support NFSA to improve its organizational capacity, provide training to their food inspectors, and harmonize their regulations with international standards and trade agreements such as Codex and those of the World Trade Organization (WTO). We are three years into the six-year program, and I am proud of the impact and partnership between NFSA, USDA, and Venture37 to reduce trade barriers and improve food safety for Egyptian and international consumers.

How has TAIB partnered with the Egyptian government to transform food standards?

One of NFSA’s most important functions is to develop food standards that set requirements for all food in Egypt, whether imported or produced domestically. These standards serve as the backbone for regulating food, ensuring that it is produced in sanitary conditions and is safe for consumers. Recognizing that many of Egypt’s food standards were inconsistent with international standards and guidance, NFSA’s leadership has prioritized updating Egypt’s food regulations. Specifically, TAIB has helped NFSA take action and progress in these areas:

Regulations Benchmarking: We found that countries often have difficulty benchmarking their current regulations against international standards and trading partners. To alleviate these challenges, we help benchmark Egypt’s existing regulatory standards against Codex (a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practices, guidelines and food safety recommendations approved by food standards agencies from 188 countries), as well as those of regional and international trading partners.

International Guidance and Regulatory Reviews: To support harmonization efforts, we develop international guidance and conduct regulatory reviews that showcase practices from international countries on their regulatory control approaches. We then work with NFSA to develop policy frameworks to articulate their positions to stakeholders.

Risk Analysis: We have worked with NFSA to obtain data through consumption studies. Using this data, we worked with NFSA to conduct a risk analysis to set an appropriate level of protection. We work to ensure that regulations are based on science and tailored to the Egyptian context.

Public–Private Dialogue: Recognizing that public-private dialogue is a key component for good regulations development, we bring together stakeholders to review and discuss technical regulations. For example, we work with Egypt’s Chamber of Food Industries, the largest member association of Egyptian food companies, to develop industry guidance to enhance compliance and industry’s understanding of regulations. We also work with NFSA to promote delayed enforcement, a best practice that allows industry time to adjust to new regulatory requirements.

What outcomes has this had on Egypt’s food standards? Why is this important?

With TAIB’s support, NFSA has begun to modernize its regulatory framework to better align with international standards, resulting in fewer barriers to trade and better operational efficiency. For years, Egypt relied on 100 percent inspection of all imported food consignments, which requires significant time and causes unnecessary delays in getting product to market and increases cost without much benefit in fostering food safety and regulatory compliance. But last year, with TAIB’s support NFSA published a new food import control strategy that transitions Egypt to a risk-based system aligned with both Codex and WTO principles. This change will align Egypt’s practices with best practices and not only reduce the cost of trade, but will also enable NFSA to more efficiently allocate their resources to food consignments that pose greater health risks.

We also worked with NFSA to develop their standards governing maximum residue levels for veterinary drugs in meat products. Egypt is the largest consumer of beef liver in the world, and most chemical contaminants that exist in animals are stored in the liver. With Egypt consuming a high level of beef liver, it is important that food standards take this into consideration and that an appropriate level of protection is applied versus an overly cautious approach that limits trade. We worked with NFSA to conduct a consumption study, analyzing the amount of beef liver consumed across various population groups. Based on this data, NFSA developed a food standard that protects Egyptian consumers and aligns more closely with Codex guidance on contaminant levels. The USDA published a report in July 2021 concluding that this regulatory change has decreased import rejections by 90 percent and reduced the time of release from two to three months to no more than 15 days, increasing efficiency and benefitting consumers.

We worked with NFSA to develop and align their pre-requisite program (PRP) requirements with guidance from Codex’s Food Hygiene Committee. The PRPs serve as the minimum food safety requirements for food manufacturers to produce food in Egypt. By aligning these with international best practices, NFSA is raising the bar for food safety in Egypt.

What recommendations do you have for other food safety implementers when partnering with international governments?

Looking back at TAIB’s success over the past three years, three principles drive our productive partnership with NFSA. First, we seek to demonstrate value early and often. I remember it was only two months after our program began that we launched our first international training program with NFSA’s food inspectors. This caught the attention of NFSA’s leadership and demonstrated our value proposition from the beginning. Second, we embrace flexibility and adaptive management. We understand that NFSA must respond to emerging requests from Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Office, and that plans and areas of focus change. Rather than stay rigid in our annual implementation plan, we have a supportive partner in USDA that enables us to adapt and stay relevant with NFSA. And third, we understand our role. As development practitioners, we are here to offer support and advice, but the ultimate decision is and should be up to the leadership of NFSA. We have worked with NFSA in developing more than 15 technical regulations — a great accomplishment — but it is important to note that our advice is not always taken. In some instances, NFSA has a different perspective or approach to regulating — and that is okay!  Our job is to work with and adapt to local contexts to achieve maximum and sustainable impact. In the end, we are working towards accomplishing the same goals: changing the culture of food safety in Egypt and increasing the trade of safe agriculture products.
By Alex Samel 11/15/2021