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Quality rice bound for China

Hean Vanhan, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, speaks from his office in Phnom Penh last week.
Hean Vanhan, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, speaks from his office in Phnom Penh last week. Pha Lina

Quality rice bound for China

Cambodian rice millers recently secured access to China’s immense market after two separate Chinese government bodies deemed their products satisfied its sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards. The Post’s Cheng Sokhorng spoke to Hean Vanhan, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, about approvals by China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and the China National Cereal, Oil and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), as well as the challenges of meeting SPS requirements.

China’s COFCO has approved 18 Cambodian rice millers for export, while AQSIQ has approved 28. What is the difference between the two agreements?

The 18 rice millers were part of a memorandum of understanding between the Cambodian Rice Federation (CRF) and COFCO, presided over by Green Trade. The Ministry of Agriculture was not involved in this deal and we have no control or responsibility over these rice millers.

On the other hand, the AQSIQ specifically requested us to evaluate those rice millers who had sufficient capacity for high-quality milling according to the criteria of the Chinese government. The 28 rice millers we selected from 50 applicants had already demonstrated their capacity to satisfy the criteria of the Ministry of Agriculture.

What are the main technical challenges of meeting SPS requirements, and where do most exports fall short?

We have found that most rice millers do not fully understand the SPS requirements. They claim that their machines are modern and equipped with the latest technology, so the milled rice they produce is smooth, unbroken, shiny and uniform. While this might satisfy consumers, who put high value on the appearance of rice, these are only the physical attributes.

But this is not the quality that SPS regulates, and is not what we negotiated with the Chinese government. The quality we look for in SPS is that the rice is free of pests and chemicals, and complies with food safety guidelines. Pests could devastate China’s agricultural industry, so China strictly controls its borders.

The main barrier for exporting rice to China is that millers don’t realise how strict they are on quality. Even if you had just a lone seed of grass mixed into a shipment of rice it would be rejected at the Chinese border. If the shipment is destroyed or returned to Cambodia the rice miller will obviously lose a lot of business, so it is better for them to understand and comply with the SPS requirements.

What should rice millers focus on in order to satisfy China’s SPS requirements?
Millers should focus on both the physical appearance and SPS quality of their rice. They have to identify the source of the paddy rice, check its moisture and chemical levels, properly store it, and use the correct packaging codes.

How many SPS labs and inspection facilities does Cambodia have?
Currently we have only one central laboratory, which is able to inspect about 90 of the 100 types of agricultural products we export. Another lab is being built with Chinese support on the University of Agriculture campus on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula.

We are also establishing six SPS bureaus near our borders to inspect products and issue export certificates. So far, 90 percent of the construction is finished.

The physical building is one factor, but more importantly is the capacity of the SPS inspectors who will work there. We are currently seeking Chinese investment in installing an online platform able to inspect products and transfer data to and from our headquarters in Phnom Penh, as well as to issue export certificates.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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