The FINANCIAL -- The EU has committed more than EUR 13 million to support Georgia in improving its food safety, veterinary and pytho-sanitary standards for the period of 2013 to 2017,” said Juan Echanove, European Union, Project Manager on Agriculture.
“From 40,000 registered food operators the Food Agency has tested about 2,000, just 5%. Food control should be unexpected, objective, comprehensive and the punishment adequate,” said Lia Todua, Center of Strategic Research and Development of Georgia, Consumers Rights Defense Program Coordinator.
"In total the EU has committed more than EUR 13 million to support Georgia in improving its food safety, veterinary and pytho-sanitary standards for the period of 2013 to 2017,” Juan Echanove, European Union, Project Manager on Agriculture, told The FINANCIAL. “A substantial portion of this support consists of direct assistance to the national Food Agency of Georgia, including European experts providing advice to the Agency, as well as national experts, and also capacity building for all the Agency’s staff, trainings etc. The EU assistance also includes substantial investments in equipment for food controls, laboratory tests, veterinary controls (to control brucellosis, for instance) etc, and support also for upgrading the infrastructure of the Agency. Part of the EU’s assistance is also focused on helping Georgia to draft and adopt the food safety legislation that the country needs to match EU standards. Beyond this support to the national Food Agency, the EU is also giving assistance to other state bodies with responsibilities in this sphere, including support to the Revenue service, which is responsible for the controls at the borders, and also to the laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture of Georgia. Finally, the EU is also providing grants to the NGOs and consumers organizations that are active in the field of food safety.”
A recent laboratory examination showed that the majority of dairy products marketed as Sour Cream, Yoghurt and Cottage Cheese do not contain milk fat and are made from preservatives and vegetable fat. Among these “fake producers” are Sante, Eco Food and Sophlis Nobhati.
“Of course it is not the responsibility of the EU to monitor food safety standards in Georgia. The responsibility to monitor food safety standards in Georgia belongs to the Georgian authorities, and mainly to the national Food Agency. Our support to the National Food Agency aims to enhance the capacities of its inspectors to undertake the inspections. This includes trainings and capacity building, and also clear legislation and monitoring and control systems. In the last year Georgia has tripled the number of inspections to food establishments. This is, of course, a clear indication of the strong commitment by the current government to improve the food safety situation in the country. Similarly, at the borders, in the last months Georgia has been able to detect many consignments of products that were not matching the food safety standards, and these consignments have been diverted out of the country or the products destroyed. These are all very positive indications of the active role of the state in this regard. Nevertheless, of course, there is still a long way ahead to make sure that the food that the Georgian people eat is safe,” he added.
“The food safety controls system in Georgia was very weak and the enactment of key legislation was delayed, thus the situation was actually quite bad. Now things are improving, we do see a very significant commitment, but the task ahead is enormous. One main problem is that consumers need to have higher awareness of their rights. Another is the technical and financial difficulties for some companies, especially the SMEs, to fulfil some of the requirements. This is due to, sometimes, lack of access to finances to undertake investments and improve production systems, but it is also due to lack of knowledge and understanding. In Georgia there is an urgent need of training of food processors, restaurant staff and farmers, and in general anyone working along the food chain, on the importance of food safety,” Echanove said.
In 2013, Eurasia Partnership Foundation and Golden Brand Awards by The FINANCIAL and Global Idea teamed up to promote safe food production. Golden Brand Safety Awards will be given to food producers which will pass an independent examination conducted by an EPF-sponsored laboratory.
“There is no expectation that all companies in Georgia will be able to match all the necessary standards from one day to the next. This is why a step-by-step legal approximation framework that the EU and Georgia have agreed foresees a gradual implementation of the measures. Companies will have the time to adapt. There will also be derogations for small farmers and in general for SMEs placing little production in the market. But, of course, companies placing large production in the market that would persist in not fulfilling the basic requirements would ultimately face penalties and, at the end of the day, even the possibility of legal charges. But these, of course, are decisions for the Georgian authorities to take, and not always easy ones. There is the need to, on the one hand, ensure free trade and free access to diversity of products by consumers, and, on the other hand, to make sure that consumers are not cheated or, even worse, poisoned,” Echanove told The FINANCIAL.
“The EU and U.S. are very free and business-oriented open economies and, at the same time, we do keep high food safety standards. Both issues are not contradictory; on the contrary it is hard to see how to modernize a country’s economy if you don’t follow modern and internationally accepted standards in your food industry. This is why some people think that, perhaps, the ‘free market’ arguments which are used by some pundits against enforcing food safety standards are not just based on ideology. Dumping low-quality and even unsafe food products could also have been a lucrative business for some people in the past,” he added.
“Now of course things are changing and we are very happy to see that the Government is dealing with food safety issues in a very serious and professional manner. For the EU, preserving the health of our citizens is of the utmost importance and we have a strong control system to detect the non-fulfilment of food safety criteria of any imports and we will never, of course, put at risk the health of our citizens by allowing imports from Georgia, or anywhere else, that do not match the standards.”
“There is no food safety on the Georgian market,” Lia Todua, Center of strategic Research and Development of Georgia, Consumers Rights Defense Program Coordinator, told The FINANCIAL. “From 40,000 registered food operators the Food Agency has tested about 2,000, only 5%. As far as I know, to none of them had there been issued a certificate of compliance - they had been given some remarks and given time to correct them. Some improved, some didn’t. And this test was only for the issue of hygiene. At this pace we will need more than 20 years to arrive at an acceptable level of hygiene.”
“The most important thing is that control should be unexpected, objective, comprehensive and the punishment adequate. The owners know that an inspector may not enter the premises for 20 years. And if they do enter will only give remarks and provide time to correct them. And when the Agency gives them remarks they just do not move, they do not care. Of course, there should be an instructive campaign for small entrepreneurs. A very broad and comprehensive campaign, it’s not happening. In addition, there should be inspections for food that is sold at market. But most importantly - the food and the parameters which are important for the health of the population, must be controlled. These should be based on risk analysis, which is not being conducted,” she added.
“Given the cost of health, unsafe food is more expensive, rather than harmless. Choice is made indeed according to the degree of income. Hungry people do not think about their health, but if the Government is thinking about economic development the healthcare of its workforce and healthcare costs should not be a concern for them,” Lia Todua added.
“Several things should be done by the Government to regulate the food safety issue. Firstly, the magnitude of control should become adequate to reality. Secondly, fines/penalties should become such that entrepreneurs prefer not to have violated the requirements of the law. The penalty should be proportionate to the profits (or more) that the entrepreneur expects from the violation. Thirdly, there should be an educational campaign for food operators. Fourthly, the country should conduct food risk analysis. Fifthly, there should be animal/bird registration, vaccinations, and examinations. And there should also be research on how secure agricultural standards and rules are for the application of fertilizers and pesticides.”
“There are no European standards in the country and in labs either. In general, the European Union is demanding that the country’s food safety system should be properly in place. Today it is not valid; it is only in the initial stage,” she said.