Local food producers, importers need to work hand in hand

After retirement from public service in 2016, I was employed by a processed food importer. Recently, however, the company requested that I took an indefinite leave as they were no longer able to pay for my services.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government put forward measures to stem the tide of the outbreak. While the safety of the nation should and must always come first, the restrictions caused the company to nosedive into the red.

It saddens me because albeit a small company, it has been supplying imported processed food for the local market since 1999.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, it was even considered a successful local business.

Now, they are resorting to sporadic job cuts to stay afloat, but they are merely delaying the inevitable. Sooner – rather than later – they will face bankruptcy; and this company isn’t an isolated case. A lot of food importers are confronted by the same fate.

The processed food import business is a competitive one; all players, from local farmers to local producers to importers, are fighting for a slice of the pie.

As a Bruneian, I want nothing more than to see my country attain self-sufficiency. It is perfectly understandable to try and protect the livelihood of local farmers and producers.

However, food importers feel that they are being treated like pests that need to be exterminated in order for local producers to flourish.

Whether or not these importers’ sentiment is justifiable, it stands to reason that these food importers should not be seen as threat; but a partner that fills the gaps in market demands that can’t be fulfilled by local producers.

According to an industrial colleague of mine, the last shipment his company received from Australia was in March.

The disruption to the food supply chain was expected, but it was also the perfect opportunity to loosen the policy to ensure local market demands were met. Instead, it was business as usual.

Fast-forward nearly five months, there are empty slots in supermarket shelves that are indicative of acute shortages of popular food items such as chicken nuggets, frankfurters and meatballs.

I believe the relationship between local producers and food importers ought to be a symbiotic one; while one side works towards realising the national vision of self-sufficiency, the other keeps a lid on scarcity that may lead to price gouging of popular food items, thus putting financial strain on consumers.

I hope the authorities would consider the plight of these local food importers and keep them from going under.

These businesses are operating on borrowed time. If the issues are not resolved soon, a bankruptcy domino effect among these food importers will be on the cards.

Without these importers, consumers would have far smaller variety of processed food products to choose from.

Dr S