Worrying about what’s in our daily bread

“Quality is what is missing from everything we do, from the way we live and produce and from the priorities we set ourselves… We have no administration, we do not set our own policies, we ourselves have condemned our country to the status of a banana republic,» says Apostolos Rantsios, a veterinary surgeon and university lecturer who has been working tirelessly toward curing Greece of its provincial introversion. Highly knowledgeable about new world trends in food production, processing and distribution from his long experience in international agencies (for 10 years he headed a NATO working group on food hygiene and technology, was until recently president of the World Veterinary Association, and for 10 years was chairman of the Hellenic Veterinary Medical Association), he is trying to introduce pioneering ideas into Greece. After the recent major food crises in Europe, Rantsios believes that a new philosophy is emerging within the EU regarding the protection of the basic human functions known as eating and drinking. It is a philosophy that embraces not only a person’s way of life but the way economies evolve, a philosophy that is redefining the concept of quality. A quality product can be described as such only when it is produced in a way that is sensitive to factors that might at first appear irrelevant, such as the humanitarian treatment of animals, environmental protection and sustainability. This is the new, radical dimension in defining quality that is now being introduced into Europe, «the most civilized part of the world.» Are Greek food products of good quality, as the authorities claim they are? No evidence for these claims has been presented. Perhaps the quality is good in the primary stage of production or at a specific stage in the manufacturing process, but we do not have any proof. Is the food we consume generally safe? The question of food safety has become very complicated today since food-processing plants have become much larger, as has the geographical area in which these products are distributed (all parts of the globe), and since primary materials come from many different parts of the world. So we cannot say that a food product is 100 percent safe. Every time we eat something, consciously or otherwise, we are taking a risk. How great a risk? Who can judge? The relevant authorities. What is missing, of course, is a real evaluation of the risk. However, I think that at the moment in the EU, we are setting out on the right path for the first time. The major food scandals have helped us move on to a new philosophy regarding the control of food safety. The European Authority for Food Safety, with its scientific working groups, will concern itself with evaluating the risks, while management of those risks will be left to the national authorities. The same authorities, European and national, are responsible for making consumers aware of the risks, not to create panic but to give them the information they need to make a choice. In practice, how would this work with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease)? At the moment in the European Union, we are spending 1.5 million euros for every sick animal we discover. Shouldn’t we be spending it? That is not what I mean at all. BSE is a major problem. We are dealing with new pathogenic factors, just as we did back when we discovered microbes for the first time, or when we became aware of the existence of viruses. From this standpoint the problem is very important. But the problem is not whether we put 10 animals down or whether one person in a million gets sick, when 20 or 30 people die every weekend on the roads. What is the new philosophy you mentioned? The new European legislation on food (Directive 178/2002) that came into force in February 2002, is concerned above all with the stages of production (for example, animal fodder must have the same safety specifications as food for humans), processing and distribution, so that we will not discover the unsuitability of a product only once it is on the shelves, when the only thing left to do is to destroy it. Also it touches on the issue in a multidisciplinary way. Veterinary surgeons, doctors, chemists and so on all work together, admittedly with the veterinary surgeon playing the most important part, because irrespective of the stage the product is at – production, processing or distribution – it is he or she who has a knowledge of the entire chain, and so is the first violin in the orchestra. In Greece we are far behind on this. Separating the professions into fortresses creates problems both in inspections and in the approach to the problem. Isn’t this new philosophy known in Greece? The Hellenic Food Authority (EFET) is working within this framework, but it is not yet complete. So, because there are a number of general problems, the 17 EU directives on food safety will soon be merged into five regulations. In practice, many legislative powers are being taken away from national governments. When will the new law be implemented in Greece? When we have a State, by which I mean an administration. In the meantime? In the meantime, in the developed world, the consumer determines production. Consumer choice dictates what is to be produced. Whatever is produced is consumed. That is why Europe is in a corner. Everywhere else – America, Japan, Australia, Latin America – they invoke science (the safe production of goods as cheaply as possible). Europe is invoking something more, involving issues that do not have a direct relationship with the food product; the humane treatment of animals, protection of the environment, sustainable production and exploitation. That is why, with its new Common Agricultural Policy, the EU is no longer subsidizing producers, on the one hand to put a stop to subsidies that create an artificial paradise for products, and on the other to serve the interests of a civilization that cares about the generations that are to follow, as well as the environment and animals. We eat pork, but that does not prevent us from wanting the animal to live as well as possible. In any case, it is stupid to torture it, since then its meat will not be of good quality. This is where there is a major difference between Europe and the rest of the world. I am afraid that Europe is still the most civilized part of the world. What about Greece? We have to apply the legislation in Greece and see where we are. At what stage are we? Inertia. The usual reply is, «Whatever Europe decides.» We have not become accustomed to proposing policy in international organizations, which is very important. But we can’t even implement policies… We are not in a position to do so. Any political decision that is made in your absence can only coincide with your interests by chance. That is why we are continually protesting. We don’t act in advance, but we try to protest afterward, which is completely wrong. Cotton crops are a tragic example. Natural resources are dwindling (huge water resources are needed for this crop), and the environment is harmed by the intensive use of pesticides, a mistaken investment. Cotton producers live on subsidies which will cease within a few years, since the money will go to protecting the environment. Why do we keep cultivating it? Why aren’t the farmers being informed about this? Why don’t we forge our own policy? I see countries such as Belgium or Denmark, which are not large countries, but which demand that international organizations satisfy their demands based on specific policies. I do not understand why Greece has to be a banana republic. We ourselves have condemned ourselves to this role, and so no one respects us. Greece has two faces: one European, one Eastern. We have made our choices on the political level; the question is how far our bad side will let us realize them in practice. To safeguard our interests by looking ahead and creating the appropriate alliances according to the situation. Why don’t we do it? We have no awareness of things. We live among the fringe-dwellers of prosperity (the developed countries have a total population of 1 billion) but the rest of the world is quite different (in India, for example, 3 million lepers roam the streets and 50,000 people die every year from rabies). If we realized that, we would not complain because we don’t get subsidies for cotton. We would know that it was being produced more cheaply somewhere else, at a better standard and where it was not harming the environment. However, in order to see that, we have to come out of our shells and give up our navel-gazing and introversion. We have to broaden our horizons. In two years’ time, we will have Euro elections. Who is to represent Greece? What ideas will we take to the new European Parliament? How will Greek culture be represented in Europe? We are asking that Greek be included among Europe’s official languages. On what do we base this demand? We won the battle for Greek feta, but that does not give us the right to do whatever we want. At the moment, Danes, Germans and other experts are in Greece collecting laboratory samples of products that are called feta but which in fact are not, according to our own specifications. The problem is that the dimension of quality is missing from everything we do. And we don’t believe in ourselves. We listen to foreigners more than to Greeks. For 20 years, the situation in the Rendi vegetable market has been common knowledge – a disgrace which should have been stopped. But we only got upset when the inspectors came from Dublin (obviously we are waiting for the same thing to happen at the Varvakeio meat market before we begin to get worried). Why don’t the media get interested in these things earlier? Why is what I am saying not being listened to here, only elsewhere? What is our greatest challenge? Quality. We must realize it is quality we should be selling, what we will live on and the only thing we can produce. We cannot compete quantitatively.