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May 7, 1996
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 239
The Food We Eat

Mouthful of Disease

by Branka Kaljevic

Self-declared sausage makers Desanka Radu and Stevan Tanackov from Jazov village near Coka, quite by accident, tried but failed to sell their wares made of dead animals (pigs and sheep) at the Kikinda market. Their 100 kilos of sausages and meat products made the police patrol on the Sid-Kikinda train suspicious. The story defies reason: a group of people organized a business venture near the Rita farm and Jazov slaughterhouse, using the meat of animals who died of diseases to make sausages and other products. Radu and Tanackov got arrested on criminal charges for endangering health and their meat products were sent to the Veterinary institute in Zrenjanin for analysis.

Daily press reports showed that the scandal was brushed under the carpet and the results of the testing were never made public. There was no answer to questions about whether animal farms dispose of dead animals properly.

Belgrade residents found metal filings in their sugar recently and it took over a month from the first rumor to an official statement. Again, no one reported what happened to the "metal" sugar, whether it was domestic or imported. the advice to the population was to watch out for filings.

The food story has its roots in the times before the war and sanctions.

In the late 1980s about 50% of family incomes was used for food. It was a period when we got to know about imported foods, drinks and sweets.

A recent report by the federal statistics office, one of the few institutions that deals with food quality, an average daily meal during the sanctions stood at 10,173 calories "far below established norms for a balanced diet". Meat, milk and eggs account for just 27.5% of food intake while the required daily minimum is 30%. From 55 kilos of meat and fish in 1991, annual consumption per person fell to 35.6 kilos in 1993. In 1991, the Yugoslav population consumed 154 eggs per person and in 1993 that number fell to 125.9. Vegetable consumption also fell drastically in those years from 102.3 kilos to 87.7, fruit from 47.4 to 31.2 and milk from 87.7 liters to 65.8, Even the consumption of wheat and flour dropped from 128.9 kilos to 114.5.

So what did we eat? The death rate in those years, including last year, rose by 15% in Serbia alone. Experts claim that blood vessel diseases are dominant along with cancerous afflictions and add that low quality food is one of the main causes.

"Based on last year's research, 25%-30% of the tested food does not meet required quality levels. Bread ranked first with 60% not within the proscribed norms. Over 30% of meat products do not meet the minimum quality and the situation is similar with milk products."

The percentages are lower in terms of health quality but even one percent can cause a problem. Of 21 food groups tested in Belgrade last year, 10%-12% did not meet the required health standards. Perishable goods account for a large part of that percentage. In one spot check alone, health inspectors found that nine out of 10 articles were substandard. Parasite control showed that 7% of the items checked contained parasites.

"Chemical testing of food contaminated by polluters such as pesticides, toxic metals, additives, antibiotics, industrial pollution showed no alarming results. But that testing was conducted on a relatively small number of samples since the tests are expensive and take time to complete. There were some effects from cadmium or remnants of antibiotics in milk," Dr. Jankovic said.

Serbia produces an annual 1.6 billion liters of milk. 40% of that goes through dairies before reaching consumers. Most of it is produced by farmers who keep it from themselves and therefore the low consumption (50-60 liters). Developed countries with large populations consume 200-250 liters of milk per person every year.

The first problem is storing milk under defined norms. Farmers don't have cooling devices to keep the milk fresh in transport to dairies. In a climate like this milk would have to be refrigerated 180 days of the year.

There are no complete figures on the effects of food on the health of the population, especially under the sanctions. Serbian health minister Leposava Milicevic, told Ibarske Novosti daily that the damage in terms of health inflicted by the sanctions are lower than the World Health Organization estimated. She said the main thing was survival and didn't mention the consequences.

Belgrade's Health care institute chief Dusan Jankovic told VREME that he could only provide a general answer to the question are we eating well considering all the food available. The processing of milk in big dairies meets the required standards. The problem arises in distribution. Pasteurized milk should be in coolers and not in crates on the floor of supermarkets.

Professor Lazar Stojanovic, of the Belgrade veterinary school, said we drink quality milk but there are problems because of an increase in the number of microorganisms. "Under international norms, 200-600,000 microorganisms are permitted in milk. We allow up to three million. Milk that does not quite meet standards is used to make cheese and is harder to control."

An analysis of milk in February showed that 50% of the pasteurized milk tested had high water content. In March, the Imlek PKB dairy reduced that to 30% percent. It seems that whenever prices are low they solve their problem by adding water. Powdered milk is added to yogurt which is not allowed.

Stojanovic said powdered milk is a story unto itself. "That milk is usually imported unnecessarily with expired use by dates. It is used in the sweets industry and you get a funny taste in candy, yogurt and cheese. Everything we taste as sour is bad for us."

All in all, not including baby milk, the milk we drink is hygienically OK but does not meet quality levels. Private dairies are a special problem on the market because they can't meet all the conditions required by something this sensitive. Health inspectors in market places just take samples if they think something is wrong and the test can take days. Even if they prove the food is bad

, inspectors have a hard time finding the farmer.

Experts and inspectors weigh every word they say when discussing food quality fearing a panic among consumers or damage to producers. They do their work far from the public eye, offering their services to anyone who reports bad food products. The people are quick to forget things even as serious as food epidemics. Flea markets, street vendors, smugglers have been providing food for years and their popular prices make them sometimes the only source of food for some families. In state shops, a monthly consumer basket costs at least four average monthly salaries. Reports in Montenegro said it costs 1,900 dinars. Open air markets are the sales place for everything from meat products, powdered milk, cheese, sardines and medicine. All of them imported with instructions and declarations in a foreign language.

"Official imports are tested," Milan Baltic, professor at the veterinary school, said. He said the most acute problem now is pork meat infected by trichinella. "That parasite spread most in the Vukovar, Sid, Sremska Mitorvica area over the past two years. Rat control was almost nonexistent and the pigs were diseased. Dead animals are buried in shallow holes and the rats come and the circle closes. That parasite can cause trichinelosis in people which starts with stomach trouble, a temperature, aches and heart problems. Even death. Pork from that area is checked very carefully before being processed. The problem are farmers and private butchers around Belgrade who get their meat from that area. The epidemic has hit whole villages."

The Vojvodina epidemics institute in Novi Sad warned in its report early this year that trichinelosis is spreading and is present in villages near Novi Sad and Bela Crkva. Last year 298 diseased animals were found. Over 650 people have been afflicted. Meat with trichinelosis is sold under the counter at low prices and the disease spread over the past three years from the Krajina and Bosnia.

We also don't know the outcome of a pork plague in January around Kraljevo and Nis nor the number of sick animals and people.

Meat products hold the record in bad quality. Experts claim that producers do not respect proscribed percentages under which salami has to contain at least 70% of the highest quality meat, 10% tissues and 20% fat. Instead lower quality meat is used along with things like soy beans.

Inspectors withdrew 70 kilos of chicken products from stores in Belgrade just before the new year after tests showed that feathers and bones were used in them. Salmonella was found in chicken sent to a Belgrade nursery school.

The republican health institute alarmed the health ministry by demanding a ban on artificial sweeteners in juices.

Dr. Dusica Nikosavic also warned of antibiotics in ice cream. She said there was more fuss being raised over food than it was really polluted. "The quality is bad and that can rarely endanger health. We have also managed to force the ministry to ban the use of artificial color in products consumed by children. They can cause allergies or bronchitis."

We lost salt from Tuzla when the country broke up. "Montenegrin salt is good but there isn't enough of it. We import about 200 tons of salt a year. In the world, iodine is added in special plants and its hard to buy with the iodine added. There are some diseases that demand iodine and if we don't solve the salt problem those diseases could spread."

The key people in the hierarchy charged with taking care of food control are sanitation, veterinary and agricultural inspectors. They are responsible directly to the state and got the status of republican inspectors several years ago when city and local council inspectors were abolished. There were never enough of them, especially not today with given the large number of shops and small producers with no experience of conserving food and no experts in their plants. Everything depends on the inspectors: closing down shops, withdrawing products and quality control. No one except the inspectors can take samples for testing. Some tests take up to five days and if bad quality is found the inspectors should immediately ban the product. They react quickly when baby food is tested (within 24 hours) and slower in cases of milk products and beverages. The health care institutes are limited to expert services for the inspectors at their beck and call. Each inspectorate has its ministry.

None of the food control laws include the obligation by the authorities of informing the public. Their only obligation is withdrawing the given product while the so-called honor court has to publish a list of producers or traders who do not meet standards.

The Belgrade Consumer Movement is trying to do away with the practice of not informing the public. That non-governmental organization starts from the consumer's right to quality goods. Their reports to date have pleased consumers and upset producers. The reports include the product name, brand, producer, price, chemical tests and quality level. Movement chief Petar Bogosavljevic said they've just got started and are already being threatened with law suits. "they calm down once they realize they have no counter arguments and promise to improve their quality," he said.

Food control experts said there are no big problems with producers. Plants and internal control still function as habit from better times. As soon as the product leaves the plant the problem arises. The main pollution problems are in warehouses in big trade companies and in transport.

In their latest big operation, inspectors and expert services covered non-alcoholic beverages produced by private companies. 133 of the 165 samples (80%) were substandard. Tests showed artificial sweeteners and colors were used and some bottles weren't sealed properly. 10% of the samples contained the escherichia coli bacteria caused either by bad quality water or failure to wash bottles properly.

We got out of the war, sanctions and smuggling fat, sick and poor and we won't be getting quality food here for a long time. The only certain way to protect yourself is to watch what you're buying and not buy food under the counter at cut prices.

Anemic Children

Almost 30% of Belgrade school children up to the age of 15 are anemic and 60% in Vojvodina. 50%-60% of them have bone deformities. About 6%-9% have high blood pressure and 8% have excess cholesterol levels.

Those are just some of the figures published in a report by Dr. Ivanka Gajic of the Serbian health care institute covering the 1990-93 period.

"We have no national food institute like many other countries and there isn't any one place that can provide information on food quality or health," she said. Figures on children's health come from school doctors but their tests aren't detailed enough.

"About 25% of children show signs of obesity. Over 10% do not get enough food and 15% should get better food. The best sign of bad food quality is the one third of children who are anemic but that can be prevented with a balanced diet. The health of children is no directly linked to the financial situation of their families. We eat improperly in all families. She said the parent's attitude towards food is the key element. "Most well fed kids have parents who have an opinion on food. Obese kids come from families that are not interested in food. In Belgrade 3% of parents believe it's healthy to be fat. Research also shows that fat kids do worse in school than normal kids."

Everywhere in the world obesity is thought to be a sickness of the poor because starch filled food is cheaper. But here there is no rule.

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