Outdated, fake and inadequately-labelled genetically-modified food products are quite common in Georgia, where the food that people eat is sometimes hazardous and even potentially life-threatening.
In the absence of stricter rules, Georgian producers can call some products whatever they want, even if they’re not exactly what they claim to be. Market freedom can mean the freedom to deceive consumers.
Professional laboratories in the country meanwhile remain unable to test for trans fats, artificial colourings and food additives. The authorities have promised to deal with this too, but have set no date for the implementation of a testing regime.
Combined with problems with border controls on imported goods and relatively rare inspections of food companies by officials, experts say that people in Georgia remain precariously unprotected from health risks posed by their everyday diet.
Cream without milk?
Dairy products such as sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and butter are some of the most popular foodstuffs in Georgia. But sometimes these are not what they seem; some of them would not even be classified as dairy products at all, if they were judged by international standards.
Lika Todua of the Centre for Strategic Research and Development said that tests carried out on sour cream revealed that some varieties were not even made from milk.
“In some cases, milk fat was missing altogether. It might have been vegetable fat or animal fat,” said Todua.
When it comes to other dairy products, the picture is the same. Although producers in Georgia are not legally obliged to use 100 per cent milk fat in dairy products, experts believe that consumers are being misled.
“In cottage cheese, if you use milk protein and milk fat along with vegetable fat and vegetable protein, you cannot call it cottage cheese. In a nutshell, its content should correspond to its traditional name,” said food safety expert Zura Tskitishvili.
Standards established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international expert body set up by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, are used throughout the world for the labe lling of food products and the regulation of additives and food hygiene.
Signing up to these international standards however is voluntary, and Georgia has not done so. Instead, Georgian producers can use any ingredients they choose and call their product whatever they want.
“Given that this issue is not duly regulated, the market is in chaos in this regard,” explained Vakhtang Kobaladze of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation
“Producers may have their own internal standards that are not subject to approval. So they produce any type of product they please and they are free to call it butter or milk, for example, which, in reality, may contain very little milk fat,” he said.
Since violations are especially frequent when it comes to dairy products, a group of consumers launched a petition on the momxmarebeli.ge website, protesting against manufacturers who sell fake goods. More than 2,000 people have signed up in support.
Responding to public unease, the government has been working for several months on standards to regulate dairy products.
Kakha Sokhadze of the National Food Agency explained that a series of the most basic questions had to be resolved in order to better protect consumers: “What is a dairy product? What can we call sour cream? What type of product can pass as butter, or cottage cheese?”
But experts warn that dairy products are not the only foods plagued by problems.
“Some Georgian juices use standards from the 1970s when additives were not regulated at all,” said Todua.
Drinks sold as juice can actually turn out to be compote or nectar instead.
“It is up to the authorities to enforce standards of production. Whatever is not juice according to international standards should not be sold as juice,” she said.
The fat issue
The use of vegetable fats is also not regulated, even though they are among the most heavily-used ingredients in food production. Experts suggest that the vegetable fat used to produce various foods in Georgia, including dairy products, may contain trans fats.
“Unsaturated fats are solidified vegetable fats [created] as a result of a chemical reaction. These fats are hazardous to health because the system cannot digest them. This is why their amount in food is regulated,” Todua explained.
“Products created in this manner are alien to the human system. The body fails to recognize them, and they accumulate, contributing to excess amounts of fats in the bloodstream,” said Todua’s colleague at the Centre for Strategic Research and Development, Eter Sarjveladze.
A campaign advocating a ban on trans fats is underway throughout the world. Studies have suggested that trans fats increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and according to the US Food and Drug Administration, stricter regulation could save 7,000 lives and 20,000 cases of cardiovascular disease a year.
Georgian labs, however, cannot identify trans fats. The Centre for Strategic Research and Development conducted a test in 2012 by sending products to a lab in Lithuania. The tests showed that even Georgian butters, especially spreads that look like butter but are actually a mixture of various types of proteins, contained trans fats.
“Sometimes the doctor says that it is good for my child to eat butter. So I go and buy butter, which is actually a spread. It is a violation of our rights, is it not?” said Sarjveladze.
The National Food Agency is supposed to regulate food safety and quality. But the agency has never tested the levels of trans fats in Georgian products, and it doesn’t it have any plans to do so. According to Sokhadze, it relies instead on information provided by manufacturers.
“The producers tell us that the fats they use contain no trans fats. However, due to the inability to conduct lab tests, no studies have been carried out,” he said.
European countries pay close attention to food additives, substances often added to products to change their colour, taste and smell or prolong their shelf life. But this is not the case in Georgia.
“It’s funny when it comes to food colouring. There are six types of color additives prohibited in Europe. In Georgia, only two are banned, and even these two cannot be tested and identified here,” said Sarjveladze.
“What’s the point in writing something on the label when I have no way of checking it?” she asked.
Sokhadze admitted that there were “certain problems related to food testing” because of the inadequacies of Georgian labs.
“I agree, the regulations on food additives are outdated. They were approved by the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Protection in 2001. They must be updated, and work on it is underway,” he insisted.
Toxicologist Inga Ghvineria said that food additives need to be regulated because they may cause various diseases.
“When these food additives enter the human system, they react with the enzymes and hormones in the body. All this affects the endocrine system. This is why gland disorders are so frequent, leading to damages in the reproductive system. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women,” she explained.
There are fewer than 10 accredited food testing laboratories in the country, and most work on products intended for export. Getting a license to operate is expensive by local standards, said Mzia Kharadze from the Expertize laboratory.
“Accreditation used to be cheap. This year, however, if I wanted to work on 40 different items, I would have to spend over $28,000 for accreditation. So we certify only six or seven items, mainly products intended for export, such as vegetables and fruits and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages,” Kharadze said.
The government does not test enough products to make it profitable for private labs, and private companies are not subject to strict regulations obliging them to do tests on a regular basis.
The National Food Agency said that the state should step in and instigate a testing regime. Sokhadze promised that “very active work is underway” to ensure that this happens. But when asked exactly when, he could only respond: “It’s hard to tell.”
Some European Union countries with a lack of testing facilities send products to foreign labs, but Georgia very seldom does this. In 2011, 14 different samples were sent to a lab in Lithuania. In 2013, 40 samples of honey were tested, but that was because export of honey to EU countries was being launched.
Lies on the label?
The lack of state regulation and control inevitably means that some people get sick.
Tamar Daraselia says that she always scrutinises food labels because she is allergic to legumes such as soy, beans, and peas.
“So every time I buy food, I carefully examine it to see if it contains any legumes. I have bought hot dogs and reacted to them very badly. They must have contained soy,” she said.
Three years ago, Daraselia bought some dumplings. She looked at the label, as always, but it proved to be no protection.
“After having eaten, I drove off to run some errands. I realised I was having an allergic reaction. I was having difficulty breathing. I pulled the car over and decided to ask some stranger in the street for help. I managed to mention what kind of medication I needed, so that person provided timely assistance. I was lucky. It could have been fatal,” she recalled.
The food producer said there was no chance that there were legumes in the dumplings. Daraselia took her case to the Centre for Strategic Research and Development, which does lab tests on request. But because it is not possible to identify soy in products in Georgia, the samples were sent to a lab in Lithuania.
“Soy was identified in the sample. We informed the food producer, because soy, as an allergen, must be listed on the label, no matter how small an amount is present,” said Todua.
“The food producer disagreed, insisting that it was textured soy, which the producer claimed could not trigger an allergic reaction. Textured soy is soy protein, and it is precisely protein that causes an allergic reaction. So of course this information should have been on the label,” she said.
According to the law, a label must contain information in the Georgian language and include the product’s shelf life, weight, amount and ingredients. For many years however, labelling violations were not punished.
Fines for inaccurate labelling began to be imposed in late 2013, and in the first quarter of 2014, 51 cases were recorded. The companies responsible were fined a mere $225 each.
Lamara Tsalani recalls how her grandson became ill after eating out-of-date biscuits at school.
“After he came home, he started scratching. I asked what was wrong. He said he had a rash. I checked and realised that it was an allergic rash, so I called the ambulance,” she said. The boy had to spend several days in hospital and have a blood transfusion.
Fines ranging from $113 and $284 for selling expired food will come into force after the adoption of amendments to the legislation governing food products.
This remains a major threat to public health; the National Food Agency identified 260,000 kilogrammes of expired solid food products in 2013, as well as 2,200 litres of expired liquid food products, 13,000 kilogrammes of expired meat products, and over a million out-of-date eggs.
Meanwhile, 10,500 people in Georgia suffered from food poisoning in 2013, according to preliminary statistics.
“Food poisoning has a far-reaching impact, contributing to the development of various illnesses, such as cardiovascular diseases with subsequent strokes and heart attacks, different types of tumours, diabetes and other diseases,” said Lela Sturua of the National Centre for Disease Control.
Genetically modified confusion
Some experts see genetically modified foods as a way to provide cheap nutrition, but debate continues about whether they are hazardous to health. Therefore in most countries, the labelling of genetically modified products is strictly controlled.
“Genetic modification implies genetic changes, replacement of the genes of one organism with the genes of another in order to extend its shelf life and ensure it won’t spoil. We can’t tell from its appearance whether a product is genetically modified,” said Georgian doctor Marina Giorgobiani.
According to Georgian law, genetically modified organisms must be listed on a product’s label if they exceed 0.9 per cent, and a private lab to identify GMOs was established in the country last year.
In the only analysis carried out so far, commissioned by momxmarebeli.ge, samples of textured soy, soy protein powder and soy concentrate, which are often added to meat and chocolate products, were tested.
The Georgian lab discovered that three of the samples were genetically modified, although it failed to identify the amount of GMO in the products. The samples were then sent to a lab in Germany, which found that two of the samples contained less than the 0.9 per cent required for it to be listed on food labels in Georgia.
The National Food Agency had been accused of not doing enough to ensure that product labelling is correct, with the police being responsible for investigating cases of false labelling. Unlike the European Union, Georgia has no single body tasked with controlling food safety and quality.
Juan Echanove, the agriculture project manager at the EU delegation in Georgia, said that this was not necessarily a problem, but suggested that “perhaps the National Food Agency should have a bigger role in terms of controlling falsification and food quality”.
The Investigations Service at the Ministry of Finance told Studio Monitor that it has identified only 34 cases of food falsification in the past five years; 13 cases in 2009, eight in 2010, two in 2011, one in 2012, and 10 in 2013 up to November.
Uncertainty at the border
Labels on imported foodstuffs are not checked for accuracy on the border. While food safety within the country is the responsibility of the National Food Agency, the Revenue Service at the Ministry of Finance was put in charge of the issue on Georgia’s borders in 2005.
Echanove argued however that the food safety agency should be directly involved because of its specialist expertise.
“Normal procedure is that the food safety agency has the findings and then afterwards if it’s really an offence and there is really the need to begin a criminal case, of course it would be for the police to look into the case,” he said.
Zurab Tskitishvili, who co-authored the current law governing food safety in 2005, explained that corrupt deals involving importers meant that tougher control was necessary. “This is why it was decided to transfer this authority to control food safety to the Revenue Service,” he said.
But Tskitishvili said that the law was supposed to only remain in force for three years, but appears to have become permanent.
The revenue service said that it was normal for it to control food safety at Georgia’s borders: “European countries share the practice of revenue services doing this job. In Holland or Finland, or in neighbouring Azerbaijan, the same practice is in place,” said Tengiz Martiashvili from the Customs Department of the Revenue Service.
But Echanove argued that the Revenue Service’s role could cause conflicts of interest which undermine public health protection.
“One of the interests of a revenue service is to get revenues, among other things, from imports. So that the normal position of an official at the border from a revenue service will always be, ‘Let’s have as much trade as possible, because it’s revenue. The positions of the food safety authorities will always be, ‘Let’s make sure that the foodstuffs entering this country are safe.’ There is this risk of conflict of interests,” he explained.
Thousands of tons of products are imported into Georgia every year. According to the Revenue Service, only five violations were recorded in 2009, five in 2010, six in 2011, and three in 2012. In 2013, there was a large increase to 33.
In 2013, after a new government came to power the previous year, the number of inspected products quadrupled to 2,025 and the National Food Agency’s budget was doubled to $6.8 million.
But experts claim that the agency is still not doing enough. Some 40,000 food businesses are officially registered in Georgia, and the agency has inspected only two per cent of them so far. Of these, 673 businesses were informed in advance and 232 were visited without warning.
“The initial inspection must be unexpected, so that every entrepreneur must always be prepared for it. Inspections must also be frequent enough so they think that the possibility of inspection is quite high. If it’s one in a million, then I don’t need to bother [to comply with regulations],” said Todua.
There have been frequent changes to food safety laws over the past few years, with another set of amendments only recently adopted by parliament. But while systematic problems remain, unscrupulous producers and vendors will go on deceiving and defrauding Georgian consumers, and the threat to public health will continue.
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