Flexible food safety bylaws are making it easier for small-scale producers in Serbia to sell their products in formal markets.

These rules, in line with EU food safety and quality standards, include derogations for traditional products based on local fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs. They add to earlier measures developed for Serbian meat and dairy.

They mean small-scale producers and processors can continue following traditional production methods as long as the food is safe and procedures around hygiene are followed.

FAO, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Serbian Government held an online roundtable with Serbian agricultural producers, food distributors, representatives from producer organizations and consumer groups on what the rules entail for on-farm and small-capacity processors on World Food Safety Day.

Thousands of small businesses
Nenad Vujović, Serbia’s assistant minister for inspection, said the bylaws are an opportunity for the country’s producers to compete on the domestic market and abroad while helping preserve the diversity of Serbian foods such as pickled cornichons and jams.

“The flexibility measures outline specific requirements related to processing that either are not compulsory for small-scale operators or can easily be adapted. We are excited to partner with everyone along the food safety chain to roll out these measures and to make sure everyone understands the economic benefits of complying with them,” he said.

Miloš Pajic makes traditional sausages, ham and other specialty meat products and owns one of the thousands of small family-run businesses in the country.

“I’m working with my children to keep them up to date on these safety and hygiene measures at all stages, from the raw material to the finished product,” he said.

In Serbia, most farming families grow their own fruits and vegetables. Many, including Stevan Petrovic, produce ajvar, a pepper paste made according to a traditional recipe handed down over the years. Petrovic said without the measures, he and other smaller operators would be squeezed out of larger, formal markets.

“When people buy my ajvar, they will know I haven’t sacrificed food safety or hygiene,” he said.

Serbia – a candidate for EU membership – began adapting its food safety regulations several years ago to be in line with EU legislation. But these rules were geared towards larger operators. FAO and the EBRD helped develop the bylaws, based on flexibility measures already used in EU member countries, to assist smaller Serbian businesses.

The webinar introduced guidelines and video tutorials, to help producers comply with the bylaws. It was the latest in a series of efforts by FAO and the EBRD supporting the Serbian Government to raise food safety and quality standards and improve competitiveness of the country’s meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable sectors.

Serbian view on issues of note
Tamara Boskovic, head of the veterinary public health department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management in Serbia, said it worked with small producers over several years to try and find solutions.

Tamara Boskovic

“We prepared a rulebook with derogation for small producers and guidelines for the meat and dairy sector on how they can implement hygiene and self-control rules. They started to submit requests to be in our register and under our control, we also provided local training for them to focus on hygiene rules and so they were aware flexibility rules do not apply to hygiene,” she said during a different webinar on World Food Safety Day.

“We had some issues in mountain areas where there is no potable water or water at all or electricity so hygiene rules are not at a high level but working with them now a third of producers in Serbia are registered as establishments within the flexibility principles. Our ministry recognized the importance of keeping these small producers alive so provided some subsidies for them to upgrade their establishments and knowledge.”

Boskovic said the country is part of projects financed by the EU, FAO and World Bank to do and present research to monitor progress.

“E. coli and Salmonella are still top bacteria in Serbia even if hygiene rules are quite strict in our food safety systems. Viruses like norovirus in raspberries is an issue and we have certain problems with Hepatitis virus in some food. We try to implement all monitoring programs for veterinary residues, pesticides and microbiological parameters on food and at border control.”

Producers had to implement strict measures during COVID-19 but there was no less production and people were buying more food, said Boskovic.

“What we faced was there was not enough food for people in a lower social category, for the poor and unemployed as the public kitchen was closed. In honey production, we had food fraud issues as during official controls people could not go everywhere to control everything. We are trying to export meat and milk to China, we are aware food does not transmit COVID, but China asked us to check packaging material and the surface of frozen meat for COVID so we had to establish this testing in Serbia and that really caused some impact on our food industry.”

AMR on the agenda
Meanwhile, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) surveillance has been included in Uzbekistan’s National Program to Combat Microorganism Resistance to Antimicrobial Drugs for 2020 to 2024.

One way to highlight the public health threat posed by AMR is through effective surveillance programs. Information about the levels of AMR in foodborne pathogens and of antimicrobial residues in food of animal origin can help guide risk management and policy.

However, not many nations in the WHO European Region have sufficient surveillance capacity for AMR in the food chain. The World Health Organization (WHO) Europe is helping countries establish and strengthen systems for AMR and antimicrobial residues, and to integrate AMR testing in existing systems for foodborne disease surveillance and response.

Gulnora Abdukhalilova, a scientist at the Ministry of Health in Uzbekistan, ran a project looking at antimicrobial resistant strains of Campylobacter and Salmonella in chickens bred for food in 2016.

Research showed most Salmonella strains in chicken were multi-drug resistant, meaning infections they cause can be difficult to treat. Overuse and misuse of antimicrobials in poultry production was a driver of resistance.

“Monitoring of resistance to antimicrobial drugs in common foodborne pathogens simply has to be done. It is important to coordinate and exchange information between different sectors, such as poultry production and health care,” said Abdukhalilova.

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