We eat; therefore, we care!
Around 85,000 kg of meat and meat products were destroyed by the National Food Agency after sales of expired food products were identified from January to September 2018.
Meat processing enterprises belong to the category of high risk producers, and, therefore, the state requires that, in addition to observing all other necessary norms, they introduce a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) system. HACCP allows the identification of critical points that, because of high contamination risks, require special control.
At this stage, the obligatory implementation of HACCP applies only to meat and milk producers, as well as hazelnut exporters. Food safety experts recommend that the state extend the requirements for HACCP to other food producers, too. This recommendation is part of the 2017 report, commissioned by the Europe Foundation, that assesses the effectiveness of state activity in regard to food safety.
According to Eter Sarjveladze, a food safety expert, problems existing in food safety can be equally blamed on both consumers and producers. In his words, “On the one hand, producers often disregard requirements of the law while, on the other hand, the level of consumer awareness is very low.”
Under the Food Safety Code, sales of expired food products are subject to a fine of GEL 1,000. Sarjveladze thinks that this fine is small, especially given that state control is not carried out with sufficient frequency and to an adequate degree. Reports by the Europe Foundation also repeatedly note the need for introducing fines commensurate with the degree of violation.
As of 1 October 2018, as many as 36,901 food business operators were registered in the Registry of Economic Activities. The National Food Agency carries out up to 7,000 inspections a year.
The Agency employs two mechanisms for examinations: inspection and laboratory testing. Some 2,525 inspections were performed during the first three quarters of the previous year, which identified 676 violations. The most common among these were failing to fulfill instructions issued during non-critical incompliance, breaching labelling rules, breaching food product traceability norms, and marketing expired products.
The Association Agreement requires the Georgian government to bring its food safety legislation in line with European standards. As a consequence, this sphere is being reformed to approximate food safety norms applied in the European Union. In this process, the Europe Foundation monitors government activity and assesses the effectiveness of its reforms. However, the Europe Foundation started to advocate food safety in 2007, well before the Association Agreement.
“When we launched our activity in this sphere, the National Food Agency did not exist. The food market was left without any control. We managed to create a platform where all stakeholders started to discuss and find solutions to existing problems. Despite libertarian views of that period, we secured a political go-ahead for the introduction of regulations as we succeeded in reaching common agreement on principled issues. The government saw that, owing to our work and correct communication, business was ready for the introduction of regulations. The law on food safety was adopted in 2010, and the National Food Agency was established. The EU integration framework helped further the cause, and efforts were taken to mobilize additional state and donor resources. All this brought us to the situation we have today,” said Europe Foundation's President Ketevan Vashakidze.
According to Ketevan Vashakidze, the system is still weak and needs improvement, especially in terms of transparency and citizen involvement. “This is what our annual studies are for, enabling us to observe the government activity in the area of food safety regulations,” she said.
An assessment of government activity in 2017 revealed several important issues that impede food safety reforms . For example, putting new legislative provisions into force has been postponed for many years. Moreover, normative acts are being adopted without involving stakeholders and without estimating the financial resources needed by business or government to execute them. The process of legislative approximation is also insufficiently participatory and transparent. Reports note that there is a need for citizens to actively perform the role of a controller.
Europe Foundation takes steps in this direction, too. An application is being finalized now. It will be a mechanism for civic monitoring of food safety. The application will enable people to get information about a food processing enterprise. In particular, they can find out when it was inspected, whether violations were detected, how many and what kind of violations were detected, et cetera. At the same time, citizens will be able to report violations detected in an enterprise.
To promote safety norms among food producers, Europe Foundation has, since 2014, conducted an annual competition to identify the best food enterprise and, within the scope of the competition, has provided food processors an opportunity to undergo a free inspection and receive recommendations from experts in the field.
Participating in this year’s competition was a meat processing enterprise established several years ago by a foreign investor in Georgia. The company owns farms and a slaughterhouse in Racha and a shop in Tbilisi. The output of the slaughterhouse is around two tons a week and is sent in the company’s refrigerated truck to Tbilisi for sale.
A group of experts hired by Europe Foundation has conducted three surprise inspections of the enterprise and issued recommendations. As the manager of the enterprise noted, recommendations by these experts included issues that had never been mentioned by the National Food Agency. For example, a lab test of dirt washed off of hands and clothes, which is related to hygienic norms, was recommended.
It is acknowledged that success in the food safety sphere not only benefits consumer welfare but also contributes to economic development, increases tourism, and leads to more exports. “For the system to further improve, it is necessary to involve consumers. Detecting violation is not enough; we ask everyone to report those violations via our hotline in order to enable the Agency to take immediate response,” Giorgi Mikadze said.
In 2018, the National Food Agency received 363 reports about various violations, exceeding corresponding violations from the previous year. By the end of this year, civic monitoring mechanisms will see an additional Europe Foundation food safety application that will further simplify the detection of safety norms by consumers. After all, this is in the interest of everyone: we eat; therefore, we care!
Author: Ketevan Maghalashvili
Photos by: Natela Grigalashvili