Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Europe, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

PORTUGAL: Easing Food Safety Standards for Traditional Products

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Aug 20 2008 (IPS) - As the only alternative for preventing the disappearance of small-scale farming, farmers’ markets, rural slaughterhouses, taverns and traditional food products, Portugal has decided to interpret the strict European Union regulations on food safety with a domestic slant.

The increasingly stringent EU regulations had begun to pose a serious threat to a sector that is important to the Portuguese economy: gastronomy based on home cooking and artisanal products, for which, along with sun and beaches, this southern European country is famous.

To remain in step with the EU, Lisbon created a special police body, whose agents are the most feared and hated by a populace accustomed to devouring tasty dishes often prepared with food that comes from small producers.

Portugal went from a near total lack of food safety oversight to the other extreme, furnishing the new Agency for Food and Economic Security (ASAE) with exceptional powers.

Armed ASAE officers who would show up wearing masks – to avoid being identified – to carry out their inspections began to shut down markets, small taverns, farms, and small cheese shops and bakeries producing traditional delicacies.

But in the face of the public outcry in a country where laws and regulations are not always so strictly enforced, the government of socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates was forced to backtrack, and decided to adapt EU food safety regulations to the Portuguese reality – and to the need to continue attracting tourists.

Small-scale production will now be less complicated. Selling eggs, honey or fish in small quantities will be simpler, and will face fewer safety and hygiene restrictions. Artisans and cottage industry food producers are now exempt from having to secure special licences, and more flexible rules will apply to the small-scale slaughter of livestock.

“A series of legislative measures, circulars, messages and reports targeting small-scale, traditional producers and artisans have come out in the last few days, with the aim of improving their chances of survival,” economic analyst Carla Aguiar, an expert on the food industry with the Lisbon newspaper Diario de Noticias, told IPS Tuesday.

But the great majority of traditional producers “are unfamiliar with these new regulations and do not know how to defend themselves from the ASAE,” she added.

A joint communiqué issued by the economy and agriculture ministries in late July explained the simplified hygiene conditions that would enable small-scale food producers to continue supplying their customers, which are mainly taverns, restaurants and small shops.

To loosen the restrictions, Portugal invoked provisions of the 2004 and 2005 EU regulations allowing member countries to establish their own rules for small-scale producers in the case of certain foods.

The new Portuguese government rules set upper limits on what classifies as small-scale production for each product, including homegrown eggs, honey, fish and seafood, beef, poultry and wild game. Producers must also register with the national veterinary office.

The nationally adapted EU regulations allow small producers to make their products at home – a provision that especially favours the production of a broad range of traditional cheeses and preserves.

But “the government initiative emerged after several complaints from producers and the break out of the controversy surrounding the ASAE,” said Aguiar.

The modus operandi followed by the ASAE triggered howls of outrage. In the fierce public discussion, respected intellectuals, defending traditional products, pointed out that culinary traditions form part of a country’s culture.

Some writers and filmmakers went to the extreme of comparing the ASAE to the Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (PIDE), the secret police that operated during Portugal’s 1926-1974 dictatorship.

Aguiar quoted Professor Xavier Malcata, director of the department of biotechnology at the Catholic University of Oporto, who said cases of food poisoning generally do not involve traditional products.

Malcata, who has been studying food safety and protection for two decades and was granted the International Leadership Award by the International Association for Food Protection, “has assumed the role of standard bearer in the defence of traditional Portuguese products,” said the analyst.

She again quoted Malcata, who described ASAE’s performance as “autistic,” and warned that overly ambitious oversight could spell catastrophe for Portugal’s traditional heritage. The professor specifically referred to sausage shops and bakeries, “two gastronomic treasures associated with certain regions, which have to do with centuries of cultural evolution, with our own ethnic identity.”

“Probiotic yoghurt,” a fashionable, innovative product, only offers economic gains to a few big companies, while “the quality of traditional products, a factor that distinguishes Portugal from other countries,” is ignored, and current legislation “favours foreign specialties,” says Malcata.

The professor also laments “ASAE’s excesses with respect to traditional products,” and said that while oversight is necessary, it must be carried out “in dialogue with us and with associations of food producers.”

He said the food safety police, who answer to the Economy Ministry, should understand that “laws are not dogmas, and should act with common sense and not be more papist than the Pope.”

He also recommends reasonable enforcement and oversight that takes into account the fact that “large producers are the main repeat offenders.”

Aguiar agrees with Malcata that eating involves a certain level of risk. “Food cannot be completely risk-free, and eating is a calculated risk. Zero risk? Not even in Norway,” she said.

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