NEWS

Food safety gets a roasting from ‘disappointed’ EU inspectors

Suppliers put food on the floor near garbage bins, products are left under the hot sun for hours before being put on the shelves, fresh fish is transported to restaurants in non-refrigerated vehicles, meat hangs out of the back of vans and worst of all, no one takes any responsibility when things go wrong. These were, once again, the findings of inspectors from the European Union who visited Greece recently, spending 10 days checking retail outlets, eating places and laboratories where vegetable oils are processed. Their visits, organized by the National Food Inspection Agency (EFET) together with the Agriculture Ministry, the State Chemical Laboratory and relevant prefectural departments, included supermarkets, restaurants, catering companies and confectioners. The impression made on the inspection team, which aimed at finding out whether rules of hygiene were being adhered to and whether there were any checks on the way food was transported and stored, was «very disappointing.» Not only were even the most basic rules of hygiene not observed, but no one was responsible for seeing that they were. The inspectors are to file a report which the Greek authorities will have until fall to respond to. Within the month of July, meanwhile, there will be another inspection of the Rendi food market. Greece has often been visited by EU inspectors and these visits have often been highly unpleasant for the local authorities. Greece has not managed to harmonize its legislation with that of the EU and usually makes promises to improve things which it fails to keep. About two months ago, the head of the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers’ Protection, Robert Coleman, accompanied by the head of the inspectors department, visited Greece. This was very unusual. Coleman pointed out that all member states presented some problems, to a lesser or greater extent, but Greece was the only country which over the past five years has had a steadily increasing number of problems regarding food safety. «That is why we decided to talk to the Greek government,» said Coleman. Conditions at Greece’s abattoirs, the program to wipe out bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and brucellosis in sheep, problems at border posts where food is imported into Greece, and therefore into the EU, the notorious Rendi meat market and the lack of communication between various services with authority over the same areas, have all been the subject of various EU reports. Veterinary inspection stations. These stations inspect products entering the EU from third countries. According to the EU report, hygiene conditions at most of these sites are poor; either there is not enough personnel, or else the staff are not properly informed or fail to carry out the required inspections. There are no tests for traces of antibiotics. A fast data system installed at border posts is not being used. Finally, there are no facilities for housing live animals coming from third countries, and the small number of veterinarians on duty do not know which lots come from which countries. Abattoirs. Many abattoirs in Greece do not deserve the name since they lack any facilities. The veterinarians, who are not always present although required to be, often arrive after the animals are slaughtered simply to sign the necessary documents. As local authorities turn a blind eye, animals are slaughtered and «country of origin» labels are changed. According to Agriculture Ministry data, there are 83 abattoirs operating under EU specifications, but countless others that do not. The central service issues orders for an abattoir to be shut down, but the prefects who should execute the order are reluctant to clash with local interests. Brucellosis and BSE. If someone consumes unpasteurized milk or dairy products from a sick animal, he or she could contract Malta fever, or brucellosis. Greece has not implemented the program to wipe out the disease. EU reports also point to serious weaknesses in the system monitoring BSE, as well as in policing the ban on the use of bone meal in animal fodder. Particular attention is drawn to Greece’s inability to identify animals by producer. On his recent visit to Greece, Coleman observed that the origin of the cow found to have BSE was not known. «I personally believe that this is not the only one,» he added. Communication problems. In all EU reports, stress is laid on the lack of communication between central and regional services. The latter never know exactly what is happening and which body should implement what. Also, say the reports, in most regional services there is not enough staff. Conditions at Rendi’s meat market Fresh meat on the floor; dogs, cats and birds found next to food up for sale; blood on the floors and walls; forged documents and an attempt to conceal the situation was what EU inspectors found during their visit in January. Their report mentioned the lack of basic equipment, a failure to observe fundamental rules of hygiene and cleanliness, and the fact that none of the businesses in the market had proper licenses. The Greek authorities responded with generalizations. However, the inspectors will be back from June 17-19.