From the cow to the consumer: EU helping Georgia with safer food standards

18-10-2016

With EU support, greater protection is being offered to Georgian consumers, with the adoption of European levels of food safety, animal health and plant protection standards. Our reporter travelled to the village of Uraveli, 220km southeast of the capital Tbilisi, an area famous for its cattle, where she visited a dairy processing plant, which is implementing new food safety standards in its production.

Uraveli village, Georgia - Rezo Katchkatchishvili owns a dairy processing plant in Uraveli, a village in Akhaltsikhe, 220km southeast of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, which is famous for its cattle. Now aged 45, he came back to Georgia in 2012, from Greece where he had gone to make a living for his family. On his return, he decided to start a business with the money he had saved: with no experience, but holding a degree in agriculture technology, he set up a dairy processing plant.

Initially, the plant covered just 60m2 and employed four people, with a capacity of processing 300 litres of milk a day, producing cheese and nadughi, a dairy product similar to cottage cheese. Today, the company employees 25 and works with farmers from six villages, producing four types of cheese and nadughi under the trade mark of Tifora’s Samtskhe.

Katchkatchishvili was convinced that for his business to develop, he had to implement modern food safety standards. From early this year, he has been applying the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), a world-recognised, preventive food hygiene management system, to his production. Nowadays, implementation of HACCP plans in dairy plants and slaughterhouses are mandatory, and businesses are required to perform HACCP practices.

To achieve HACCP compliance, Katchkatchishvili attended an information meeting introducing HACCP principles in practice, organised by the National Food Agency (NFA), a government body responsible for Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures and the overall food safety system in Georgia, with the assistance of the Comprehensive Institution Building (CIB) Support Programme, which kicked off in the summer of 2012, funded by the European Union (EU) with 14.6 million EUR.

HACCP compliance for greater food safety and quality

With help from a local company, Katchkatchishvili implemented the HACCP system, which has helped his business effectively ensure food safety and quality, and improve management.

But not everyone appreciates the effort: “Only two out of ten cheese collection companies acknowledged the advantage of my product, produced in a plant where the hygiene management system is secured and the product is not made with milk from cows that might have infectious diseases,” Katchkatchishvili said. “The other eight preferred to buy cheese from household farmers at a cheaper price, even though the cows may not be vaccinated, and this creates risks for consumers’ health.”

He believes government and donors need to do more to promote the advantages of vaccinated and identified cattle, as well as the production of safe, certified products.

The Project Manager of the CIB Support Programme to the NFA, Mikheil Dolaberidze, is aware of the shortcomings, and believes the EU’s assistance to Georgia in the framework of this project will go a long way towards addressing these issues.

Aim is to protect Georgian consumers

“The overall objective of the CIB action is to protect Georgian consumers by helping to develop, introduce and implement European level food safety, animal health and plant protection standards in Georgia,” Dolaberidze said. According to Dolaberidze, the first phase of the CIB programme reconstructed and equipped the existing NFA premises and provided NFA staff with appropriate IT equipment and other tools necessary for the food inspection, as well as supporting veterinary and phytosanitary staff in their duties. Based on the needs of the growing staff, NFA buildings in Tbilisi and Kutaisi, the country’s second largest city, have been reconstructed. The NFA has also built two new regional buildings and five more are being constructed.

Moreover, instruments used within the CIB programme aim at increasing the capacity of the NFA via need-based trainings and exchange programmes, supporting the NFA in establishing and continuing cooperation with counterpart institutions in the EU, with technical assistance and funding in updating field equipment for food safety and SPS specialists, and well as IT equipment and software. 

NFA Head Zurab Chekurashvili believes the main benefit of the CIB programme is “more protected consumers and more informed businesses”, about the modern standards of agri-production.

Helping Georgia products to access the European market

“We have the ambitions to adjust to the standards required for agricultural producers to access the European market and be competitive within this market. Fulfilling the obligations envisaged by the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), which is an essential part of the Association Agreement, will help Georgia improve its sanitary and phytosanitary, as well as animal welfare, legislation. The reform process will be an opportunity to make Georgian food products safer, as EU food safety standards are the highest and strictest in the work. All these are implemented with the assistance of the EU-funded CIB programme,” Chekurashvili said. 

International Expert for the CIB Programme Hendrick Kuusk, whose activities have been related to building up and developing effective food safety, animal health and plant health control systems in Georgia, believes the main challenge for the Georgian agricultural sector is to reorganise agricultural production according to international Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) acknowledged by the EU market. “In addition, it will be a challenge to determine the attractive Georgian agricultural product for the overcrowded EU internal market,” Kuusk said.

Meanwhile, the NFA has set ambitious goals to transform the organisation into one of the most effective and functional state institutions in Georgia. With the assistance of the CIB, significant development has taken place since 2012. Staff levels have risen from 288 to 513, and in particular NFA staff working at regional offices outside Tbilisi are up from just 11 to 297. This has increased the number and efficiency of inspections. Out of 30,000 Georgian food business operators (FBOs), 2,075 were inspected in 2014 compared with only 421 in 2012. And the number of FBOs not complying with regulations fell between 2013 and 2014 by almost 10%, while the sale of food with expired sell-by date decreased by almost 40%.

The new regional offices have 61 food inspectors to work from the regions, enabling the NFA to become more efficient by providing its services from the regions instead of from Tbilisi as before.

According to Dolaberidze, the programme also assisted the network of the Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture to develop its capacity to provide reliable analysis services to the NFA, and the development of Georgia’s Revenue Service Tax and Customs Administration – SPS Border Control Agency (RS) – to be able to provide SPS Border Inspections sufficient to protect the Georgian SPS sector.

With more information about modern standards, in particularly HACCP, Katchkatchishvili expects more Georgian farmers will produce safe products, which could potentially result in an increase in Georgian exports to EU countries. Higher standards of food will also benefit Georgian citizens, who will be more protected and more aware of what they consume.

Author: Tamar Khurtsia

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Comprehensive Institution Building (CIB) Programme – support to the Georgian National Food Agency (NFA)

The CIB plays the leading role in capacity building and development for the Georgian NFA, including organising trainings and exchange programmes, supporting the NFA in its cooperation with counterpart EU institutions, technical assistance, and funding in updating field equipment for food safety and SPS specialists. CIB has also provided support to other Georgian institutions, supporting the NFA in achieving its goals, such as the Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The total budget of CIB action (including 20% contribution from the NFA) is 14.6 million euros over the period 2012-2018.

The article in Georgian