Cambodia imports a substantial amount of food products to meet its domestic demand. Most of these imported products are from nearby ASEAN countries, with Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam providing the bulk of these food imports. However, food products from markets further away are becoming more popular each year, including brands from Australia, Japan, China, the EU, South-Korea, and the US.
Many food product owners and distributors do not realize that all types of prepackaged food products, including imports, require product registration before they are permitted to be sold in Cambodia. This usually requires an assessment against mandatory Cambodian Standards and local technical regulations. There are general Cambodian Standards that cover all types of prepackaged food products, as well as product-specific standards and regulations that may be applicable.
Furthermore, any type of prepackaged food product sold in Cambodia must bear a Khmer language label that meets the minimum consumer information standards, and the Cambodian Standards. This label requirement is often overlooked, with many products on the market bearing only a foreign language label.
Product Registration & Labeling Requirements
Back in 2000, a Cambodian Standard on prepackaged food labeling was adopted, clearly mandating Khmer language labeling for all types of prepackaged foods. Unfortunately, this labeling standard was not widely adopted by the industry, and even today compliance is low.
Low compliance, combined with a lack of widespread enforcement efforts, led to a misguided understanding that imported food products were not subject to any standards, did not require product registration, and were not required to bear Khmer language labeling.
Recent legal developments related to consumer protection and food safety clarified several of these misunderstandings. For example, the regulations clearly state that all types of food product must meet the applicable standards and technical regulations, which is assessed through registration. The new Law on Food Safety clearly states Khmer language labeling is required, and that the Cambodian Standard on prepackaged food labeling must be met.
The Institute of Standards of Cambodia
With the adoption of the Law on Standards in 2007, the Institute of Standards of Cambodia (ISC) was established and tasked to take the lead on standardization in Cambodia.
In recent years, we have seen a push for further standardization, to bolster international trade. Many of the new standards follow international standards, ensuring that imported products are high quality and safe for consumers. In addition, applying international standards to Cambodian-made products will mean easier access to export markets, as well as increased consumer protection.
Under the authority of the ISC, several mandatory Cambodian Standards and technical regulations related to food products have been adopted. The ISC also adopted product registration and assessment procedures to check products against the standards, and to issue approvals to use a product registration mark. This product registration mark bust be shown on product labeling, if the product is sold in Cambodia.
We expect the ISC to increase inspection efforts surrounding Cambodian Standards and technical regulations in the coming years. In 2021, a Sub-Decree was issued, addressing both the inspection powers for ISC officers and the penalties for non-compliance with standards. This is a clear signal that the government, and the ISC specifically, intend to step up their enforcement efforts. In addition, we understand that they have recently been notifying local companies of the need for compliance and warning of potential penalties.
Product Registration Mark
During the prepackaged food product registration process at the ISC, the food product is assessed against the mandatory Cambodian Standards and any technical regulations – including the Khmer language labeling standard.
When the process is complete, the ISC issues a license to use the product registration mark on the product label. This mark shows consumers that the product has been duly registered and assessed, and thus serves as a quality and safety mark for consumers.
For certain types of food, a second product registration process must be undergone with the Ministry of Health’s Department of Drugs & Foods. The department also issues a mark as evidence of registration, which must be borne on the product label.
Observation would suggest that most products on the market are not currently in compliance with these standards. Many products do not show the registration marks, or do not use Cambodian language labeling. Given recent legal developments and an increased focus on enforcement, this is likely to change.
Increased Consumer Protection Efforts
Since 2019, there has been a push by the Cambodian government for increased consumer protection. This push includes updating the regulatory framework and increasing enforcement efforts.
In line with the push for more regulation, the Law on Consumer Protection was adopted in 2019, followed by the Law on Food Safety in 2022. Shortly after these major legislative developments, several implementing regulations related to good safety have been adopted.
The regulations cover topics such as enforcement powers and procedures, food recall and seizure procedures, the minimum consumer information requirements for product labeling, and the inspection powers of enforcement officers. The enforcement authorities have issued several warning notices in local media to inform the industry that they intend to enforce the laws and regulations.
In addition, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Economy & Finance issued an inter-ministerial prakas (ministerial regulation) on July 17, 2023, setting monetary fines for violations of the Law on Food Safety.
The above shows clear intent on the part of the authorities to enforce the Law on Food Safety and the related regulations. The regulatory framework has been clarified and the associated penalties and enforcement powers are now set.
Enforcement Efforts related to Food Safety
Enforcement is not centralized in one agency in Cambodia.
Depending on the specific violation, several authorities are permitted to act. Some of the agencies that are active in this area include the Anti-Economic Crime Police Department, the Cambodia Counter-Counterfeit Committee, and the Consumer Protection, Competition, and Fraud Repression Directorate-General. Furthermore, as noted above, the ISC has adopted an inspection Sub-Decree, meaning they will likely conduct more on-site inspections. Lastly, the Ministry of Health’s Department of Drugs & Food may also conduct inspections through its Food Safety Bureau and designated inspection officers.
Over the past three years, we have seen a clear focus by these enforcement authorities on food safety issues. Local media report almost weekly on the efforts of authorities taking action in cities and rural areas, seizing non-compliant goods and penalizing violators.
In addition, minimum information requirements for food products are now enforced more strictly. This includes the information provided to consumers via labeling on products, and via advertisements. The rationale is that the consumer must receive sufficient and truthful information to make an informed decision prior to purchasing a product.
A key feature of these regulations has been mandating Khmer language to ensure a full understanding by Cambodian consumers. However, the industry still has a long way to go to implement Khmer language on their product labeling and advertising. Based on Tilleke & Gibbins’ recent market surveys, foreign-language-only product labels and advertisements remains prevalent.
Shifting Focus related to Food Safety
Initial enforcement actions were focused on removing unsafe foods from the market. For example, strong enforcement action was taken against products that were past their expiry date, or against foods that were considered unsafe for consumption after sample field testing. These products were immediately seized from the market, and in some cases, recalls were ordered and forcibly executed.
A notable case involved coordination among several ministries, eventually involving Customs, in an effort to completely block the further import and distribution of a non-compliant overseas product. This blockade remained in force until the food safety issues were resolved.
However, more recently we have recently seen the first signs of increased enforcement efforts purely based on a lack of registration, or when products have non-compliant labeling. The authorities are actively warning local distributors of the risk of penalties for failing to comply with the registration and labeling regulations, signaling a shift in focus away from just unsafe foods to wider non-compliance.
We advise both local and overseas companies to review their Cambodian product portfolio, and to move to full compliance. Even where only the local distributor or retail partner will legally be subject to the enforcement actions and penalties, negative media stories resulting from enforcement actions can harm a brand’s reputation in the market.