Where Does Our Food Come From? An Insight Into Qatar's Food Industry
Look in any shopping aisle in Qatar and you may notice that most food is produced overseas. In fact, Qatar relies heavily on food imports. In 2012, Time Magazine reported that nearly 90 per cent of all of Qatar’s food was imported from foreign sources. In investment bank Alpen Capital’s GCC Food Industry Report 2015, Qatar was projected to be the fastest growing food market in the region over the next few years. According to the same report, Qatar’s shoppers spent a whopping US $11 billion (QR 40.4 billion) on food in 2014. With a rising population, urbanization, growing affluence and an increase in the number of tourists and hotels, the report estimated that food consumption in Qatar is expected to reach 2.2 million metric tonnes by 2019. Unsurprisingly, Qatar’s food industry is experiencing an enormous amount of growth and expansion.
Located in one of the driest regions in the world, Qatar is subject to harsh climatic conditions with extremely low rainfall, an estimated one per cent of arable land, poor irrigation systems and a workforce lacking in necessary farming skills all of which drives it to depend heavily on imports to meet consumption needs. Despite adverse farming conditions, Qatar produces some date palm, vegetables, cereals, fruits, meat, fish, dairy products and fodder for livestock. And with a per capita GDP of more than US$ 97,000, it’s no surprise that Qatar is able to maintain its reliance on food imports.
What food is imported to Qatar and from where?
Qatar’s food is primarily sourced via the GCC followed by the United States, European Union (EU), South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand with exports mainly consisting of cereals, dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables. Saudi Arabia is a principal exporter of poultry and dairy products, with fruit and vegetables predominantly sourced from the GCC countries, followed by the EU, Asia and the United States. Meat products such as beef, veal, mutton and lamb are largely imported from Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Egypt and Syria.
Food safety regulations
The Supreme Council of Health oversees food and agricultural import regulations. Their objective is for imported food to be safe, hygienic, in compliance with international standards and GCC regulations and be fit for human consumption. Food imports must follow strict guidelines of authenticity and certification from their country of origin.
Meanwhile, the Port Health & Food Control Section monitors the standards and safety of food imports into Qatar. Its functions include periodic inspections, testing and sampling for spoilage and chemical and microbiological contamination at four designated entry ports throughout Qatar. Qatar is currently constructing a major commercial port facility, Hamad Port, just outside of Doha, to meet the significant growth of imports into the country.
All consignments of imported food must supply appropriate documentation and certification with original health certificates issued by a professional authority in their country of origin; reflecting compliance to GCC regulations. Inspection and clearance of imported food consignments are carried out according to GCC requirements and, where relevant, the principles of international organisations. Consignments that fail to adhere to the regulations can be detained or sent back to the country of export with strict penalties and bans imposed on the importer. The Supreme Council of Health estimated that within the last five years, almost 950,000 kg of unsafe food was destroyed while nearly 2.5 million kg was re-exported to its country of origin.
Foods in retail and wholesale markets are also regularly inspected and tested at random. If a discrepancy is found, the product is removed and destroyed at the importer’s expense.
The importance of food ingredients and labelling
Qatar’s food products repeatedly cross national boundaries, which can make it vulnerable to contamination and other hazards. Aware of these risks, Qatar adheres to strict guidelines to ensure the safety of its food imports.
Qatar’s import regulations are based upon standards set by the Gulf Standards Organization (GSO), the CODEX Alimentarius, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
The biggest difference between imported food products in Qatar and non-Gulf countries is the GSO shelf life and labelling technical regulations. All food items must be clearly labelled with product and manufacturing information, country of origin, halal slaughter certification and production and expiration dates, which are often shortened from the overly long shelf life of certain products.
Of course, as an Islamic country, Qatar has strict requirements for meat and poultry products. In 2013, the horsemeat scandal in Europe put a question mark on the integrity of some of the market leaders. In response, Qatar toughened up its certification process to ensure that meat was unadulterated. Based on the latest 2015 OIE reports, Qatar has banned animal food imports from a number of countries to ensure that poultry, egg and meat products were free from BSE (mad cow disease), Avian Influenza and Ebola contamination.
Otherwise, food additives and preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings, and pesticide residue levels are subject to the standards of the Codex Alimentarius and other internationally recognized organisations.
GSO regulations are often derived from a combination of CODEX, Australian, Canadian or other international standards. These standards address acceptable limits of aflatoxin and other toxins, radiation and irradiation in food products as well as maximum residue levels of veterinary drugs including antibiotics, antibacterials and hormones.
The Qatar National Food Security Programme
The World Health Organisation defines food security as existing when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” While Qatar certainly has plenty of food, its dependency on food imports has limitations. Imports can be susceptible to fluctuating price increases, embargoes, food shortages and volatile political relations with neighbouring countries.
In the wake of the 2008 food crisis when the price of imported foods skyrocketed, the Qatar government created the Qatar National Food Security Programme, an ambitious programme to boost domestic agriculture and food production to create self-sufficiency within the country. Committed to taking charge of its own food security, it aims to bring the country as close as possible to food self-sufficiency by 2030. Authorities have been trying to tackle the state’s food security through a number of projects aimed at boosting production at home and abroad including the purchase of arable land throughout the world in order to develop sustainable farming practices to support Qatar’s long-term food requirements. With increasing uncertainty of food security, global warming and political volatility, land acquisitions provide a safety net for food production needs. Through Hassad Food, a wholly owned subsidiary of Qatar Investment, Qatar currently owns farmland in Sudan, Australia, Kenya, Brazil, Vietnam and the Philippines, with future land purchases possible in North and South America.
The future of food in Qatar
With a rapidly developing population and corresponding increase in demand for domestic food items, Qatar’s authorities are striving to provide diversified methods to establish long-term strategies and solutions to alleviate the dependency on food imports. The Qatar National Vision 2030 includes the creation of a national food security system. Food security has many aspects—it is about price, availability, nutritional quality and safety. It requires a combination of production, trade, and forward planning to maintain a high level of success—especially in times of global competition or crisis. As part of the GCC, Qatar is affected by the practices and activities of every country in the region. With environmental and food production constraints, Qatar is hoping to create a flexible and resilient national food system to meet the needs of its people.
By following and participating in the creation of these international standards, Qatar’s intentions are certainly in the right place. However, how these standards are followed and implemented is up to Qatar's authorities and the future national food security system. Whatever is to come in regards to Qatar’s reliance on imports, this complicated issue certainly gives one some food for thought.
Kim Wyatt is the Doha Family Guide food contributor and is passionate about healthy and delicious food for all the family. Follow her on Instagram: Mama_Baba_Ganoush or Facebook: Mama Baba Ganoush.