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Food safety challenges in Georgia

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Friday, January 24
Food safety-challenges and perspectives was the name of the forum organized by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO) through the support of the Ministry of Agriculture on January 23. The forum aimed at the creation of a platform between the government and private producers of agricultural products for healthier production and better investment environment.

After initialing the Association Agreement with EU, Georgia is obliged to come closer to European standards in terms of food safety as well, if Georgia wants to sign the Association agreement and deeper relations with the organization.

Eleonora Dupoy, FAO Food Safety and Consumer Protection Officer stressed that since 2004 there have been lots of cases in Georgia when people were poisoned by food products. According to her, the problem might be due to the growing number of producers and lack of regulations.

The EU has stressed that between 2004 and 2009 [there has been] “practically no control and inspection of food in Georgia, no reference laboratory in the country and no system to control food safety.”

Jonathan Charles, head of the Communication Department of the EBRD, stated that the problem remains and it will be reduced through the collaboration of the interested sides, transparent legislation and by using foreign and local experience as a guide. It has been stressed that the initial steps for creating a better situation is related to legislation and providing information to producers regarding the changes.

The National Food Agency was established in Georgia in 2006. However, the body was eligible to inspect business only in 2010. Thus, there was no regular inspection of food from 2006-2010. From 2010 to 2013, 2,000 business operators were inspected, when there are 50,000 registered business operators in Georgia. The outcome revealed that an inspection has never been conducted in 90% of those 2,000 food producers.

Currently, the agency lacks the human and financial resources to conduct inspections. There were only 20 inspectors in the agency in 2013. The number was increased to 100 in 2014. Through the regulations, which come into force in 2014, business operators will be obliged to establish a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system. In case they fail, sanctions will be placed on them. The government states that food safety strategy and its legislation are being elaborated but no deadline has been established. According to the Georgian Governmental Decrees, the permit issue rule by the National Food Agency is changing. The list of products under veterinary and phytosanitary control is increasing. So the products which were imported to Georgia without permit will require permission.

Ketevan Laperahsvili, from the Ministry of Agriculture, told The Messenger that the situation concerning genetically-modified products will also change. According to her, the country could not differentiate genetically-modified products, as there was not an appropriate lab in the country.

Laperashvili stated that there would be two kinds of licensed laboratotries opened in the country this year.

Alongside the positive changes, some challenges might have to be addressed in the process of trying to meet European standards. Small and middle businesses will have to make changes in their effort to establish new standards. Even in cases where SMEs have information concerning the legislative changes, they might fail to address them due to a lack of finances.

Laperashvili stresses that the government is focused on the creation of the appropriate and transparent legislation, as well as informing businesses about these laws. However, the government will not help business if they do not establish standards because of a lack of finances.

One of the outcomes from the situation that was voiced during the forum was creating cooperatives and unifications by farmers, which would grant them the ability not to be destroyed.

Former Minister of Agriculture of Serbia, Goran Zivkov, told The Messenger that the government should establish different laws concerning various types of businesses.

“There should not be common legislation for those businesses that have huge incomes and, on the other hand, for SMEs,” Zivkov said, noting that SMEs should have their representatives participate in various meetings and “make the government” listen to them.

Business representatives at the forum emphasized that transparent legislation and governmental assistance through informing businesses in essential. They stressed that the process of meeting European standards will not be easy for many businesses in Georgia through their own resources. As for exporting products to the EU, only a few business operators stated that they are ready to export products to the EU market on a short timetable after signing the Association Agreement.

However, Zivkov told The Messenger that the EU market will not receive Georgian products in a short term perspective due to several reasons: food safety regulations in the EU are too strict; the EU is not familiar with Georgian products; and Georgian products lack the special licenses and standards the EU consumers demand. So, Georgia will have to develop the whole chain of product delivery, including the packaging. Thus, according to him, after signing the Association Agreement, export to EU from Georgia will not be greatly increased (currently Georgia produces nuts, fruits and wines for the EU).