The FINANCIAL -- Food safety has become an important aspect of agricultural policy for many countries (see, e.g., CAP). By definition, “Food safety refers to the conditions and practices that preserve the quality of food to prevent contamination and foodborne illnesses.” In other words, food safety aims to protect the health of humans, animals and plants at every stage of the food production chain in conformance with the "farm-to-table” principle established by the EU.
FOOD SAFETY IN GEORGIA
On June 27, 2014, Georgia and the EU signed the Association Agreement (AA) and its integral part - the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). As part of the obligations under the DCFTA, the Government of Georgia (GoG) has developed the “Georgia Food Safety Approximation Plan” and employed the first food safety strategy, which aims to implement the standard European-style food safety standards in Georgia.
For the purpose of this strategy, the GoG has made a great effort to make significant changes regarding food safety regulations. In line with the European Union’s (EU’s) food safety policy, the country has adopted the Food/feed safety, veterinary and plant protection code:
“The purpose of this Code is to protect human life and health, consumer interests, animal health and welfare, and plant health, as well as to define the unified principles of state regulation and to form an effective system of state control in the fields of food/feed safety, veterinary and plant protection.”
With the aim of creating an effective system of food safety control, in 2011, the GoG established the National Food Agency (NFA). The NFA carries out the inspections (official control) to verify compliance of food and animal feed condition with food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary related standards.
The NFA uses the following mechanisms: inspection, monitoring, supervision, documentary inspection, and sample taking. Since its foundation, remarkable improvements have been noticed in this area, and the NFA periodically publishes the results from its official inspection. In addition, it provides information on permitted vet medicines in Georgia. The NFA performs more and more inspections of food products and places year-over-year (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The number of inspections conducted by the NFA during 2011-201
Source: National Food Agency
In 2016, the NFA inspected:
280 meat production/realization objects
140 milk and dairy factories
774 public food locations and 51 “sashaurme” (fast-food place where you can order shaurma)
kitchens in 929 kindergartens and 297 schools
153 bread factories, 254 bakeries and 88 confectioneries
1680 super and mini markets
The NFA performs unscheduled inspections whenever there is an appeal from consumers. In addition to this, www.consumer.ge and www.mkidveli.ge increasingly take care of consumer rights and performs inspections on demand. The European Foundation has created a mobile application, “სურსათის უვნებლობა“(Food Safety) for Androids, which provides Georgian consumers the opportunity to be aware of the results of government food inspections.
SOME LIKE IT CLEAN, SOME LIKE IT CHEAP
Despite Georgia’s progress, there is still a long way to go to be close to EU standards. Food safety is a multidimensional issue that has different angles, and requires equal attention from government, consumers, producers, farmers, and researchers. To have a better understanding of food safety issues in Georgia, let’s discuss two different stories:
Story 1: On May 2nd, Imedi TV showed an alarming video to Georgian society. The TV channel had conducted a journalistic investigation into Tbilisi’s restaurants. The journalist went to the particular restaurants that were mainly located in Tbilisi’s prestigious districts, and asked for jobs (as waitress, baker or even cleaner). After she acquired the job, she recorded the situation in the kitchen of the particular restaurant with hidden camera. The video is mind-shaking and shocking: a dirty environment, which was visible even with a poor level of lightening (as if a good chef does not need lighting while cooking), is not the proper word to describe the situation the audience saw in the kitchens. The question is not only what is going on in the kitchen when big brother is not watching; the question is also why these popular restaurants were not included in the NFA’s inspected food locations (just a reminder, the journalist observed the restaurants that were located in the Tbilisi’s most prestigious districts). Apparently, random checking sometimes does not work. It turned out that some consumers recognized their favorite places and asked the NFA to inspect the restaurant. Of course, the restaurant was shut down. The most shocking aspect of the story was that some people preferred not to close this restaurant after the owner made a touching appeal on TV, saying she did not have money for restoration. Long story short, some Georgian consumers are neither aware of food safety standards nor do they care about them: some like it clean, some like it cheap.
Story 2: Few weeks earlier, my friend went to her favorite place in Tbilisi to have her favorite chubby doughnut. After trying her best to cut the doughnut, she found some rubber remains in cream (see attached photo). Instead of an apology, my friend got the waitress’s chuckle. It appeared that a chef left one finger of his rubber gloves in the doughnut. Even though she did not expect that the sanitary norms were being violated in this restaurant (they have a transparent kitchen), my friend asked for an inspection. The results showed that everything was in line with standards in this kitchen: there was no poisoning or untidiness, and the chef knew the restaurant’s ingredient suppliers. The moral of the story? Food inspection is useful, but it is not always infallible: if the rubber remains are too tiny to notice, a consumer may swallow them.
Well, even in the EU, food safety is not always guaranteed (for example, Horsemeat Scandal in 2013). But in contrast to European consumers, Georgian consumers are reluctant to complain about food services; according to the Consumer Survey, 69.4% of respondents did not complain about violations of food safety standards. The main reason was that they thought it would not make any difference. This problem indicates either the weakness of consumer organizations, or a poor culture of providing attentive services.
POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MAKING FOOD SAFE
The stories above have some wider implications for the food industry in Georgia:
• Despite the code on Food/Feed Safety, Veterinary and Plant Protection, which imposes obligations and responsibilities on producers, this legislation barely affects business activity, as the level of entrepreneurial and consumer awareness on this issue is very low. The mission of the NFA, consumer.ge and other authorities should make the inspection results not only available, but also meaningful. They should use all available channels to increase citizen awareness regarding food safety issues by organizing public consultations and trainings for consumers. Every consumer has the right to know what he eats. A strong and powerful consumers union should be established in Georgia, like other European countries. Modern EU consumer policy protects consumer rights through legislation, including helping them resolve disputes with traders fast and efficiently through alternative dispute resolution and European Consumer Centres. In order to ensure consumer rights, the NFA can also use certification that guarantees the safety of any meal consumers order at a restaurant. Consumers would no longer operate under the assumption that health inspectors have visited restaurants, but they would know exactly where it is safe to eat based on clear, accurate and consistent information. The NFA should ensure a high level of transparency of activities.
• Research studies in the food safety area focus on the role of managers and qualified employees in the food business. Georgian consumers do not possess any knowledge about the practice of employees who actually prepare food and cook meals. Employees should better be trained for safer food. In addition, restaurant managers should be qualified enough to monitor the food preparing process and ensure that the kitchen is clean and safe. And, additionally, if something happens, employees should apologize to consumers instead of laughing at them.
To sum up, on its path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, it is important to assess the GoG reforms in setting up an effective food safety system, and increase citizen awareness about the processes Georgia is going through. While many adjustment costs are anticipated in the short-run (both for producers and consumers), having a more effective food safety system is definitely a big investment in modernizing the agricultural sector and improving public health in the country.