Issue 3, 2014. June-July

   

EATING FROM A CAN: THE FACTS ABOUT PROCESSED FOOD IN GEORGIA

Food is an integral part of our lives, yet in many countries the food we eat is becoming increasingly unhealthy. The fast pace of modern life often means we work more and have less time to cook homemade, healthy meals. In the United States, as much as 70% of the food people eat is processed. These are food products that contain additives and chemicals to make them last longer and enhance their flavor. A large percentage of products in the supermarket are processed, just as fast food is highly processed. While processed food can be very palatable, numerous reports point to higher rates of illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and other health problems, linked to the consumption of processed food.

Marta Ferrer Lubeck

What Is Happening in Georgia - Is Our Food Healthy?

Food industry experts point to a lack of statistics on processed food in Georgia, but acknowledge the increasing trend of consumption of processed food. Lia Todua, Consumer Rights Protection Coordinator at the Center for Strategic Research and Development in Tbilisi, explains that "20-30 years ago meals were prepared by mothers. Now habits have changed. Many women work and there is less time spent cooking." The increasing consumption of processed food should be examined, but, according to Todua, there are two problems that must be addressed in the immediate term: lack of food safety and counterfeiting of products.

"Food produced in Georgia is not safe from a microbiological perspective. Meat preparation is far from European standards, and up to 90% of meat preparation in Georgia does not meet microbiological criteria for proper standards of production," says Todua. "There are about 40,000 food operators in the country, but many have no proper education about basic hygienic rules, starting with something as elementary as washing hands." She adds that sanitary inspections were suspended in 2006, and the National Food Agency did not have a mandate to conduct inspections for years. Todua adds that once safety improves, nutritional awareness will follow.

What's in a Label?

One general rule of thumb in determining the nutritional value of a product is that the more ingredients it contains, the more processed it is. As such, consumers should read the label before buying a product. However, says Todua, counterfeiting of products - and mislabeling - is a problem in Georgia. For example, producers use powdered milk instead of fresh milk. Asked why many producers use powdered milk, Todua explains that "there is not enough natural milk to supply market demand," and powdered milk is cheaper. There are other products which are also not yet subject to strict labeling rules under Georgian legislation, including sausagues which, by the standards used today, could include soy.

The Georgian government is considering legislation that will address problems in the food industry. Kakha Sokhadze, Head of the Food Safety Department at the National Food Agency (NFA), says that new legislation will be introduced in Parliament this year to revise the Food and Safety Code adopted in 2012 in the areas of Food Safety, Veterinary, and Plant Protection. Sokhadze adds that the NFA's priority is that "both primary and secondary [processed] foods should be safe for consumption." He emphasizes that the NFA has been very proactive in food control. "If a food product has been shown to have detrimental effects, the food is removed from the market and destroyed." Sokhadze also points to recent successes in the food market. "HIPP [an internationally known producer of organic baby food] is now producing raw products using Georgian apples. The final product is sold in Georgia and is also being exported for sale in EU countries."

Another organization active in the Georgian food industry is Elkana, a Georgian NGO founded in 1994 that fosters the development of sustainable organic farming and self-reliance of the farming population. Elkana consults with farmers on how a farm can become certified organic. Organic products are particularly healthy because a farm must follow a strict set of standards in order to be certified. Tamaz Dundua is Program Manager at Elkana. When asked about the prevalence of processed food in Georgia, he says that as long as there is demand, producers will continue to make it available. Dundua points to sausage as an example of a popular processed food and says that "it is difficult to find good-quality sausage produced in Georgia." Milk, sour cream and yogurt, as well as some types of breads, are other processed products sold widely throughout Georgia.

Nevertheless, Dundua is optimistic about Georgian food products.

He says that while there are some exceptions, Georgian products are high quality products. In particular, "people should buy local fruits and vegetables," says Dundua.

"They have traveled less distance than imported products and are less likely to have been treated with fertilizers and pesticides, chemicals that are expensive for many Georgian farmers." In addition, there is now at least one Georgian milk producer that is using raw milk for all dairy products it manufactures. Dunduaalso believes that as the public becomes more educated about the many healthy food alternatives available in Georgia, people will make better choices.

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