ECONOMY

New laws on produce markets

The people who control the fresh produce markets (fruit, vegetables, meat and fish) are expected to provide stiff resistance to efforts by the Ministry of Development to put some order – via a new law – into the chaos that currently prevails in sales of fresh produce, including at the outdoor markets. This is what Nikos Printezis, managing director of the Athens Central Market Organization, believes. Printezis says that the law of supply and demand has only operated imperfectly until today and concedes that his own organization «has many defects.» He says that at the main vegetable and meat market at Aghios Ioannis Rendi, contrary to widespread belief, there are the «fewest cases of excessive pricing and artificial shortages» and adds that, this month, a tender will be called for the construction of the new meat market, a project estimated to cost 16 million euros. The Rendi market has often come under fire from European Union services, and others, concerning the conditions under which fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, are stored and transported. When will these conditions be improved? I am not among those who praise their own house; I will attempt to present an accurate picture of the organization’s difficulties and prospects. The Rendi market has, indeed, faced recommendations by the European Commission to modernize its meat storage facilities and a similar recommendation will be made for fruit and vegetables. Similar recommendations have been made to other European markets. Some of them implement modernization programs, while others have shut down because the meat producers have decided to go it alone. We believe that having a centralized meat market in Athens and Thessaloniki benefits the consumer, because a central market encourages competition and pushes costs downward. Free and unfettered competition is, for the EU, sacred. And justly so. But, we should not forget that small and medium-sized firms operating within the Athens Central Market suffer from several defects. Their size, combined with their weak capital structure, make them unable to face the increasing competition. Moreover, they do not respond immediately to fluctuating demand. Thus, every time there is a peak in consumption, they attempt – thoughtlessly, perhaps – to recoup previous losses. Finally, they have to face the illegal, nomadic, open-air trade that operates outside the market. Despite the adverse economic conditions, the Athens Central Market Organization in 2002 implemented its largest-ever investment program, costing 3 million euros, to upgrade the facilities of 35 meat companies. We are continuing the effort by calling (in June) for a tender for the new meat market, at a budget of 16 million euros, with modern facilities for 43 firms. Soon, we will implement a program to modernize the fruit market. This will provide our 40-year organization with a totally new image. Its facilities will be upgraded without interrupting market operation; this, of course, will be time-consuming. Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos presented a draft bill concerning farm products and open-air markets. What do you think are its merits and defects? I think the minister’s decision to change the framework for the trade in fresh products, and especially of the open-air trade, is very important. In an environment where the logic and rules of the free market gradually prevail, the creation of a register of firms, the issuance of transit documents for farm products and the creation of a new system for operation of the open-air markets, as well as a provision of trade permits, will prevent the rigging of free competition. Certainly, the ministry’s undertaking is not at all easy. There will be a great resistance from those who control the market today. However, I believe the government is determined to create a new regime, where businesses will compete fiercely and mercilessly, but on equal terms, so that those who survive are truly fit to undertake feeding us. As for the weak points of the new framework, if there are any, they will appear upon its implementation. Do you think that the new market regime will stop illegal trade? The new regime will modernize the market and free it from the unhealthy influence of certain enterprises. In other words, the proposed changes, when fully implemented, will radically change the way those involved in the trading of fruit and vegetables can operate. They will prevent charging unacceptably low prices, which is the result of illegal practices and tax evasion, as well as the exploitation of any company’s monopoly. In the Rendi market, there have been cases of excessive prices and artificial shortages at critical periods for inflation. How have you dealt with them? I believe that in the Rendi market we have the fewest cases of excessive pricing and artificial shortages. They may be given more publicity, because it is a controlled space and such instances are easier to detect by authorities. But, especially in Rendi, any excessive pricing of individual goods is countered by an increase in sales of competing firms. Something similar happened recently in Germany, where a shortage of asparagus from Greece, due to damage resulting from bad weather in April, was dealt with via imports from other countries. In an era of globalization, where products from all over the world are supplied, and where goods produced in one country with favorable weather conditions can quickly reach countries where weather has disrupted production, phenomena such as shortages in basic goods or excessive prices are not justified. I remain optimistic that the professionals involved in the market will meet the market’s real demands and that they will be socially responsible.