Food safety: Brussels is watching

In the wake of a series of negative reports that followed previous inspections, the EU experts arriving today will be checking on whether Greece has lived up to its commitments regarding food safety. Robert Coleman, director general of the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General, accompanied by the head of the inspectors’ department, will have briefings at the Agriculture Ministry on what Greece has done to rectify the situation. Attention will be on the abattoirs where «serious weaknesses» have been noted, the Rendi fruit and vegetable market, where there are «serious problems» requiring «commitments from the Greek side,» shortcomings in procedures at border control posts, the problem of combating brucellosis in sheep that causes Malta fever in humans, as well as repeated infections found in mussels in the Thermaic Gulf. The fight against BCE is another thorn in Greece’s side. According to EU inspectors, there are major problems with enforcing the ban on livestock fodder and in removing high-risk material. No refrigeration The poor situation at the country’s abattoirs has existed for some time and is far from being resolved. There are actually no refrigerators at the abattoirs, and profiteers can make any number of desired changes. Therefore it is in many people’s interest that the abattoirs remain as illegal as possible and free of inspection. As a result, public health and consumer protection are left to chance. Livestock arriving from abroad (either the EU or third countries) are supposed to be slaughtered within two to five days at the most. However, they are usually herded into stables «to be fattened up,» but where the spread of disease is unchecked. Nor can anyone find out the animals’ place of origin. Deputy Agriculture Minister Fotis Hadzimichalis admitted to Kathimerini that this problem was almost impossible to resolve. «Every time we find a way to stop people altering an animal’s country of origin, we soon have to come up with something else,» he said. Kathimerini has written previously about the many illegal abattoirs around the country that do not adhere to specifications set out by the authorities. According to the Agriculture Ministry, about 30 abattoirs have had their licenses revoked and another 40 are to follow. However, although the ministry issues the order to revoke licenses, it is up to the local prefects, who naturally do not want to clash with local business-owners, to actually implement the order. According to ministry data, there are 83 abattoirs currently operating in Greece according to EU specifications. Installations in Evros, Macedonia, Thrace and Epirus are using the latest infrastructure. The ministry hopes that by the end of the year the remaining problems will be resolved with the inclusion of projects to modernize existing installations in the Third Community Support Framework. Brucellosis in sheep EU inspectors also say that Greece has been having trouble wiping out livestock diseases despite the existence of several programs over a number of years. Brucellosis in sheep has led to an increase in the incidence of Malta fever in humans, who contract the disease via the consumption of dairy products made from unpasteurized milk. In 1997 there were 380 cases among humans, rising to 460 in 1998 and 543 in 1999. The symptoms are high fever, problems in the digestive tract and poisoning, that can leave the patient with chronic problems. The program to wipe out the disease has not been implemented continually because although the EU subsidizes the program, Greece must contribute 50 percent of the outlay. In some years there have been other priorities, and naturally the EU then withdraws its own contributions. Hadzimichalis believes the EU should take into account the fact that Greece has common borders with many third countries that have different standards. Mussels in Thermaic Gulf In June and July of last year, there were six warnings of the presence of toxins found in mussels fished from the Thermaic Gulf, a situation the EU characterized as «serious.» Ignatia Kaniou, a researcher at the Veterinary Research Institute, told Kathimerini that the concentration of biotoxins was probably due to pollution. «Specific climatic conditions favor the propagation of seaweed, resulting in an abundance of phytoplankton. Because mussels absorb a large amount of water, they accumulate biotoxins,» she said, adding that there are no standard maximum levels of biotoxins throughout the EU. These substances are extremely dangerous to public health and can cause severe poisoning. «The phenomenon appears in late December and lasts until May. During that time mussels farmers should not send their products to market. As soon as the phenomenon is over, the mussels are free of toxins within two weeks,» said Kaniou. Nevertheless, illegal mussel fishing continues.

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