Sub-Standard Issue

Cambodia’s Woeful Product Standards Put Consumers in Danger

By Phen Raksmey, Economics Today

Meat vendor

Meat vendor

China’s melamine milk scandal, which saw at least six infants die from kidney damage and over 800 more babies hospitalized, brought product standards to the forefront of international consumer concerns. Like China, Cambodia is now waging war on counterfeit and unsafe products, though the battle here is just beginning.

The prevailence of imports in the Cambodian market, poor consumer knowledge of safety standards and a lack of robust legislation make product standards a critical issue. The Institute of Standards in Cambodia (ISC) stipulates that all food products and electronic products must apply for a Cambodian standard but this rule is only currently enforced for pure drinking water, vinegar and chili sauce. Most consumer products are thus not covered under Cambodian law, so are not subject to compulsory quality testing.

Poor education and scant information are reasons why producers, suppliers and consumers have been slow to address the issue, opined Han Sam Att, as she browsed for milk powder for her 8-month-old son. She cared little whether products meet Cambodian standards, confessing she would be unsure how to tell whether a product meets standards or not. Han Sam Att chooses milk powder according to the advice of her friends or relatives, who learn the better products through trial and error.

Thought for Food

Mak Soeun of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) said that Han Sam Att’s experience, currently the norm in Cambodia, is beginning to change. The former deputy director of the Department of Planning and Statistics said that Cambodia already has a complex the system of food controls to help ensure unsafe products are not on sale.

Yim Yan, the president of Cambodian Pharmacist Association

Yim Yan, the president of Cambodian Pharmacist Association

The Camcontrol department of the Commerce Ministry prevents the distribution of unsafe, poor quality, adulterated, misbranded or contaminated products, including foods, Mak Soeun said. The Ministry of Industry oversees quality control in the manufacturing of industrial products, inspecting samples of processed foods and undertaking microbiological and/or chemical analysis in laboratories on a diverse of products such as bottled water, beers, wines, fish and soy bean sauce and vinegar, he added.

But only a few national standards have been so far approved by the Industrial Standards Technical Committee, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO have noted that Cambodia’s food control activities are “weak,” with “many examples of failure to control unsafe, fraudulent and improperly labeled food.”

There is no active program of food borne disease surveillance in Cambodia and outbreak response is often limited by a lack of available expertise. Also, Cambodian legislation does not stipulate training requirements for food inspectors and inspectors do not need degree level qualifications and receive minimal training in risk-based approaches to food safety, the FAO and WHO noted in a 2004 report.

Deadly Medicine

No-one could fail to notice the multitude medicine vendors claiming to be pharmacies lining the cramped streets of Phnom Penh. But the serpents sinuously coiled around the bowl of Hygeia and the rod of Asclepius—the universal symbols of pharmacy—may in Cambodia represent venomous toxicity more than their traditional regenerative associations.

Chan Sopha, ISC’s deputy director-general

Chan Sopha, ISC’s deputy director-general

In fact, the 1,300 legitimate legal pharmacies in Cambodia only just outnumber the 1,200 illegal operations, Yim Yan, the president of Cambodian Pharmacist Association told Economics Today. The approximately 150 medicine import and export companies that supply these pharmacies also supply around 2,000 private health facilities, he added, about half of them illegal.

Testing on 250 kinds of oft-used and easy-counterfeited medicines by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health in 2004 in Phnom Penh and other six provinces revealed that 30 of the 250 medicines were fake.

Cambodia’s National Center for Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control surveyed 34 percent of the then 498 known facilities and medicine outlets in 2004, and collected 451 medicine samples across four provinces. Twenty-seven percent of samples failed the thin layer chromatography and disintegration tests. All were unregistered products.

Officially, counterfeit drugs are “any medicine manufactured with inadequate or poor quality active ingredients, any medicine without any active ingredient or the potency of which has deliberately been designed out of the limits specified by the pharmacopeia, any medicine with labeling or packaging deliberately imitating that of an existing proprietary drug, any medicine repackaged or produced by a non-authorized per-son.” Under this shared Cambodian government and WHO definition, the percentage of illicit medicines would be even higher, as unauthorized repackaging is common even in legitimate operations.

Limited Implementation

Agricultural production is another issue. Under Cambodian law, MAFF has a key role in managing the safety and quality of agricultural products as they enter the food chain. Inspections of agricultural chemical residue, animal health and animal sanitation, and agricultural material inputs must be undertaken by MAFF officers. However, evidence suggests that products in markets throughout the country are not being fully tested and that the movement of animals is not always inspected.

Even safety helmets may not be as dependable as their name implies. Helmets imported from Vietnam, China and Thailand often do not meet international standards. Handicap International Belgium last November sent ten kinds of safety helmet sold in Cambodia to the US for quality tests. Only 40 percent of the helmets met US standards.

Chan Sopha, ISC’s deputy director-general, noted that the local standards have yet to be adopted, so “Cambodia has no standard to measure the helmets yet.” Still, the ISC has prioritized standards for safety helmets, he added, so all helmets, whether produced in Cambodia or imported, will soon be obliged to up their quality.

Standards Response

While the current situation leaves much to be desired, just the creation of the ISC is a massive step forward. Chan Sopha said the ISC is working to establish standards and other technical measures based on inter-national standards, guidelines, and recommendations.

So far ISC has set over 60 standards, ranging from rules on food safety to electronic equipment, he said, though he conceded that nonstandard products still make up “most of the products supplied in the Cambodian market.”

The Institute of Standards of Cambodia (ISC)

Institute of Standards of Cambodia (ISC) is the national standards body responsible for the preparation and publication of Cambodian Standards and Guidelines for products, commodities, materials, services, practices and operations. Under Cambodia’s Law on Standards, passed in 2007, the ISC was created within the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Energy as a central authority to develop and certify national standards for products, commodities, materials, services, and practices and operations.

Cambodia has two kinds of standards: compulsory standards and the Cambodian standards. The compulsory standard obliges companies producing food products and electronic products to meet requirements or be barred from selling their products in Cambodia.


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