Often, before we buy, as we check the products we select in grocery stores or supermarkets, we ask ourselves: how safe are the foods we consume? Has anyone checked them before? If so, who protects us from expired foods, those with harmful chemicals or other problems that Albanian consumers have often faced in all these years?
The National Food Authority (NFA) is the only institution in Albania which extends throughout the country through 12 local directorates and has the sole purpose of ensuring food security for Albanians.
“The establishment of this institution responsible for overseeing food safety in Albania is necessary to meet the legal, economic and social requirements. The National Food Authority is the competent authority with inspection functions for the management at the national level in the field of safety and consumer protection, plant protection and animal health”. This is what is said on the official website of the NFA, but can this institution really control and guarantee food safety for 2.8 million Albanians?
The National Food Authority must guarantee that every product produced in Albania, whether agricultural, livestock, fishery or even processed, is within the set standards.
The Albanian Center for Quality Journalism, through a request for information addressed the National Food Authority, to learn how it performs its function to guarantee food safety in Albania, its staff but also the number of functional laboratories of this institution.
According to the official response of this institution, the NFA turns out to have in its staff a total of 418 employees, of which: 99 Administration and Directorate / s (A&D), and the rest in the inspection sectors according to the specifics of the institution, in those of border inspections and controls, as well as in the laboratories where the food analysis is performed.
Furthermore, through the official response the NFA also states that regarding the analyses performed by the latter, during the last three years (not counting the year 2020), about 75 thousand different laboratory tests have been performed.
During 2017, 27,327 laboratory tests were performed, as well as 12,242 samples were taken, of which: 5,998 within the official control and 6,244 self-control; During 2018, 30,631 laboratory tests were performed, as well as 15,537 samples were taken, of which: 9,678 within the official control and 5,859 self-control; During 2019, 17,512 laboratory tests were performed, as well as 8,126 samples were taken, of which: 5,808 within the official control and 2,318 self-control; as well as during the period January-February 2020, 2,002 laboratory tests were performed, as well as 919 samples were taken, out of which: 900 within the official control and 19 self-control.
The above are technical terms, figures and numbers that hardly explain whether the NFA is in control of the situation in import depots, storage, markets and grocery stores in Albania. We addressed the NFA again asking for a little more clarification. We asked what exactly are the tests that this institution carries out to guarantee food safety for Albanians, with the official answer of the NFA being that: “tests are performed more often regarding the quality indicators of animal and non-animal food products, labelling indicators and some analytical indicators of food safety, as well as analysis regarding the safety criteria of food products and those of hygiene processes”.
To understand more, we also addressed the former Minister of Agriculture, Edmond Panariti, who during his tenure oversaw the National Food Authority as well. Regarding our interest, whether the NFA manages to control and provide security for the food consumed by Albanians, Mr. Panariti, answered this question with another question. “How can you control a food that you do not test?” He said, adding: “Laboratory control by the Institute of Food Safety and Veterinary (IFSV) and regional laboratories has been severely damaged. The duties and functions of these centers provided by the food law have been transferred to private individuals. Traceability of contaminants in the food chain and assessment based on risk analysis is very deficient.”
The problem of lack of NFA analysis laboratories is also raised by Ersida Teliti, Executive Director of the “Albanian Consumer” Center.
“The problem with the NFA is not the number of staff but the lack of laboratories, making the IFSV the only reference system, while the NFA itself fails to conclude analysis,” she said.
The former Minister of Agriculture states that today the NFA does not perform food controls, but performs controls on the documentation of origin, label, expiration dates provided in them, storage conditions, transport and trade. “The NFA does not control food, because it does not analyse pollution or its possible falsification. That is why we have been and remain endangered as consumers. In this framework, the NFA could very well be a section of the State Police or the Tax Police, but not the authority itself “, says the former Minister who adds that the NFA has avoided its mission and function provided in the food law, to be the scientific authority and food chain risk administrator.
Meanwhile, when asked through a request for information on the amount of food that the NFA controls, this institution states that: “ The NFA carries out its activity by conducting official controls on all Food Business Operators (FBO), who operate in the Republic of Albania, and not by controlling the amount of food products. During the controls performed, the inspection bodies of the NFA, for entities which do not exercise their activity in accordance with the legislation in force, take the appropriate measures, as dictated by law, referring to the violations found.
Food security, the permanent Albanian challenge
Food security is one of the most important criteria for Albania to have its place in the European family, and every year in the progress reports of the EU for Albania, food security occupies an important place.
“Food security is one of the main challenges, in fact it is one of the problems and key points of Albania’s progress reports in relation to the process of Albania’s integration into the EU. During the progress reports over the years, it has been noticed that there have been improvements, but still it continues to be the main problematic point regarding consumer protection”, says Ersida Teliti.
This is also verified in the progress report of the EU for Albania in 2019.
“No progress has been made in risk assessment. Formal controls have been intensified and appropriate measures applied, including warnings, fines, seizure and disposal of non-consumable food, and suspension of activity, however, the staff is not adequately trained to assess and implement Risk and Point Analysis and Critical Control ”, the latest report states, which also describes food safety in some specific sectors.
EU reports can clearly show that Albania has problems with food security, but what better tells us how far we are from the EU standard is just a simple example, that of a comparison between an NFA inspector and an inspector in a European Union country.
“If you were to meet an NFA inspector today, you would find in his pocket only a report ascertainment and administrative fine sheets for the business he controls. If you meet an EU food inspector, you will find in his suitcase sampling instruments, quick analysis kits for contaminants, food counterfeiters, which he performs on site and in the presence of business representatives. He shares the results with the business and at the same time notifies the central authorities, he leaves tasks and deadlines for correction, but he does not keep an administrative fine sheet and is not there for that job. The measures are taken by someone else, depending on the certified result of the control “, says Mr. Panariti, making the comparison between the Albanian inspectors who are under the dependence of an institution which must reach certain standards to help the country become part of European Union, but what is more important, guarantee the health of the citizens of his country, by guaranteeing food safety.