Emirati 'eco-brand' to raise food standards

Home-grown label guaranteeing the quality of local produce is set to hit supermarket shelves, in bid to improve confidence in native produce.

Food inspectors from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority inspect local market produce.
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ABU DHABI // A new line of local produce that allows consumers to trace every bean and tomato back to the farm where it was grown will soon be available at supermarkets across the country. Under a scheme devised by the Farmers' Services Centre (FCS), a government-backed advisory body, the branded produce is set to hit the shelves in around six months.

David O'Brien, the chief executive of the FSC, said the new brand - a name has yet to be decided upon - along with another separate organic brand, will aim to reverse perceptions among consumers that imported food is of better quality. The programme has been welcomed by supermarkets. V Nandakumar, the corporate communications manager for Emke, which runs Lulu Hypermarkets, said a single brand would help to improve consumers' opinion of local produce.

"Producing local products under one name will improve confidence regarding quality and availability," he said. Lulu stores already have a section dedicated to local produce, Mr Nandakumar said. More than 4,000 farms in Al Gharbia are working with the centre, and while only some will sell produce through the new brand, those that do will follow strict standards on growing and harvesting. Under the scheme, the new brand will ensure food standards are far more rigorous. "Everything we eat will be safe, to the extent that whoever the supplier is, we can trace their process right back to the source," said Mr O'Brien.

At the moment, consumers cannot be certain their food has been hygienically handled, or grown with the appropriate amount of pesticide and fertiliser. A 13-year study by the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest found raw produce to be the biggest cause of food poisoning, causing twice as many illnesses as seafood, poultry or eggs. Food safety has been an ongoing issue, with inspectors in Dubai temporarily shutting down 59 food establishments in the first three months of the year because of spoiled or expired food, insects and rodents being found in storage areas, and food being stored at the wrong temperature.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, raw fruit and vegetables are a particular concern, since washing can decrease safety risks but cannot eliminate them. Most produce is contaminated after being washed in or irrigated with water that has been in contact with animal or human waste. Under the new scheme, smaller farms will be given training and expertise, while the centre will take over shipping and marketing for larger farms, many of which currently sell directly to hypermarkets.

"[The small farmer] would love to sell to Carrefour," said Mr O'Brien, "but he's only going to have two months of tomatoes, and 100 cartons of tomatoes for those two months, and that's the totality of his vegetable crop. Do you think Carrefour is going to be receptive to dealing with him?" For Abdullah al Amimi, an organic vegetable farmer in Liwa, a lack of transparency about the origin of produce is a continuing problem.

Unscrupulous middlemen are able to abuse the system, he said, while counterfeiting is a persistent problem. mdetrie@thenational.ae