Egypt’s NFSA Takes Charge To Overcome Food Safety Challenges

July 24, 2023


Having 17 agencies regulating food safety in Egypt has made the sector a “mess,” Sharkawy & Sarhan Law Firm said in a March 2017 note. That changed in January 2018 when the National Food Safety Authority (NFSA) started operating. “All 17 food-related agencies … merged under the NFSA,” authority Chairman Tarek El Houby told AmCham Egypt members at a February committee meeting. “We currently have 58 branches, plus 18 at border towns across Egypt.”

Its mandate is to ensure that imported and locally sourced foods sold in Egypt are safe for human consumption. That is no small task, as the Global Food Security Index ranks Egypt 77th out of 113 nations and 101st in the “Quality and Safety” category.

To improve those metrics, El Houby stressed the importance of the NFSA’s new three-year strategy until 2026. “We are late [in having a food safety strategy],” he said. “We must have one because we are lagging in the region.”

The authority

According to its founding Law 1 for 2017, the NFSA “enjoys a public juristic [status] and is affiliated to the president … and [reports directly to] the prime minister,” the law firm’s note said. It has “exclusive … enforcement and arrest authority in … crimes related to food safety.”

The NFSA’s powers and functions include “supervising the handling of food and ensuring all specifications and requirements set out by relevant legislation are fulfilled.” That covers all locally-made and imported edible products.

The authority also has the power to “prohibit the handling of food unfit for human consumption, and preventing fraud and deception in food [labeling] and advertising, and [setting] mandatory labeling criteria.”

It also sets the rules and conditions for granting “validity certificates” for exporters and ensures compliance with all relevant NFSA laws and regulations. That includes companies and traders selling naturally grown, genetically modified, and processed foods. The Authority uses the Codex Commission’s global criteria and standards to set local benchmarks. The NFSA could also “license, inspect and supervise” food handling and production facilities.

According to El Houby, the NFSA inspects and tests products at distribution points, factories, storage stations, and major product suppliers. “That way, we can guarantee that products on the shelves of even the most remote and inaccessible shops comply with all our safety standards.”

Aiding the NSFA in realizing its mandate is the Transforming the Assessment and Inspection of Food Businesses program (TAIB). It is a five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture project ending in 2023. At AmCham Egypt’s February committee meeting, Celine Melki, Chief of Party at TAIB, said: “Our objective is to enable NFSA’s mandate by strengthening food regulation and consumer protection while ensuring a favorable environment for food and agriculture trade.”

The program focuses on “developing technical regulations anchored in scientific assessment and benchmarked internationally,” said Melki. “We aim to assist the NFSA in establishing consistent and predictable internal policies and procedures and develop personnel and inspectors to improve practices.”

New world

One of the biggest challenges facing the NSFA is climate change. Severe weather episodes could force food-importing countries like Egypt to look for new suppliers if traditional ones suffer droughts, significant declines in yield, or delivery disruptions.

El Houby stressed the significant impact of changing sector and industry trends and technologies, such as the emergence of new food and inspection technologies, new cultivation techniques, and the expansion of recycling.

On the flip side, the increase in harmful gas emissions could significantly raise the risk of contamination of fresh produce and decrease yields, putting food supplies at risk.

Other problems the NSFA strategy needs to tackle are intrinsic to Egypt. The most prominent is the high trans fat component in the national diet. The World Health Organization said the country is “one of the highest trans fat consumers in the world.”

In January, El Houby told The National, a U.A.E. news portal, the authority “signed a bill [in 2022 to] bring the country in line with international standards.” Those new standards would apply to local food manufacturers and imports starting in January 2024.

According to a 2021 study published by Nutrients, a scientific journal, those regulations impact nearly 34% of food consumed by Egyptians. They include processed foods like fats and oil, milk and dairy products, canned and frozen food, and frozen semi-cooked products that need to be deep fried. The new requirements also should affect fast-food restaurants, in particular.

The NSFA has been doing a good job. “We commend … Egypt for taking decisive actions to eliminate trans fat,” Tom Frieden, president of Resolve to Save Lives, an NGO working with the WHO to eliminate trans fats globally, told The National News in January. “If implemented, Egypt will meet the target of becoming trans-fat free by the end of 2023.”

Reaching that benchmark could prove essential to continue exporting processed and semi-cooked frozen foods to GCC countries, already major buyers of Egypt’s produce.

Currently, Oman and Saudi Arabia have best-practice trans-fat elimination policies. The U.A.E., Iran and Kuwait place limits on trans-fat levels in locally sold foods. Meanwhile, Jordan has banned partially hydrogenated oil in dairy products since 2016. Tunisia, Qatar, Lebanon, and Morocco are developing standards to limit trans fat in processed foods sold in their respective markets.

2023 to 2026

El Houby stressed that those global changes mean existing approaches to food safety in Egypt need to evolve. The global context “forced the authority to create flexible and [more open] mechanisms that meet those changes and cope with arising challenges,” he said. “We now need to know [what is] our target and how we would be assessed on it.”

The first step for the NSFA is to ensure it has “qualified caliber” employees, El Houby said. “We need innovators to work at the authority, not employees who attend, finish their job and go home … Young [people] with the will and the mindset for change.” That is essential as the NSFA needs to align with ever-increasing and more stringent international standards and best practices, particularly digitizing food inspection and testing.

That new mindset means the authority will no longer “inspect the quality of the factory’s facilities,” El Houby said. “Our focus is that the products are safe.” That would require the NSFA’s role to change from a “policing authority” to have a “complementary” relationship with the 19,000 factories registered in its database.

Speaking to The National News in January, El Houby said ensuring that all food sold locally is safe and aligns with international standards will take time: “We can’t achieve everything all at once.