Few treats are as simple and pleasing to the palette as a fresh tomato from a Turkish summer market. But in 2010, worries about pesticide contamination brought strict curbs on exports to the EU, hitting local tomato farmers, among the world’s top five producers of the Mediterranean staple. However, the EU has now abolished the more stringent inspection requirements on tomatoes, satisfied with Turkish efforts to meet safety standards. That success followed a vote by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in June 2013 to make Turkey a member of its council, the hunger-fighting body’s most important executive mechanism. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara hailed the decision as “the manifestation of Turkey’s international role and its efforts carried out in the fields of food security, sustainable development, agriculture, hunger prevention and rural development.”
This manifestation was given further substance by the most recent report from the European Food Safety Authority, issued in December 2014. In the report, it found that under 1% of Turkish tomatoes randomly tested for pesticide residue equalled or exceeded EU limits. This compared with an overall 1.4% rate for total residue testing of food products within EU member states and 7.5% for produce imported into the bloc.
These endorsements from international institutions are a clear sign of the Turkish agriculture’s reputation in world markets, essential if the nation is to meet its target of $40bn of agricultural exports by 2023. At the heart of these efforts to secure international trust lies food safety, and discipline surrounding the handling, preparation, storage and transport of produce to prevent illness. Food safety centres on hygienic production, for both plants and animals, to help consumers avoid contaminated food.
The EU’s food safety strategy, with which Turkey seeks to comply as it aspires to full membership in the bloc, ensures food is traceable as it moves from the farm to the table, even when crossing borders. Food safety is the Turkish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock’s (MFAL) highest stated priority, and improving it is among its strategic goals for 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic.
In October 2013 the EU finally ended the requirement of increased screening of Turkish imports of tomatoes, satisfied with test results showing the country’s produce was clean. The regulations had required that 10% of products be inspected for contamination, adding costs and delays to exports. To pass inspection, farmers were required to pay for a risk analysis of their goods before and after export, which cost about $1000 per truck transporting tomatoes, undermining production with sales of about $400m a year, according to Turkish newspaper Zaman.
Though the checks are still required for Turkish courgettes, pears and sweet peppers, abolishing the inspection for tomatoes, for which the biggest market is the EU, bodes well for other fruits and vegetables. Most Turkish goods enjoy free trade privileges with the EU, thanks to the 1996 Customs Union. (paxmemphis.com) But that pact excludes all non-processed agricultural products. Instead, bilateral trade concessions apply, and European quotas limit the amount of Turkish fruit and vegetables that can be imported.
The change in the inspection policy also means that Turkish food safety standards are now closer to the criteria for membership in the EU, bringing Turkey one small step closer to membership and fully free trade. The European Commission noted in its 2014 progress report on the pace of Turkish reforms regarding food safety that legislative alignment and implementation have advanced on a number of issues; however, the report added that more needed to be done to bring Turkey’s standards into line with the acquis requirements.
In 2010 Turkey began negotiations on Chapter 12 of the EU acquis, which pertains to food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy. The chapter covers government regulations on hygiene to protect and inform consumers, such as inspections and other mechanisms to govern food security. Samim Saner, chairman of the Turkish Food Safety Association, told OBG that Turkish laws and regulations are about 90% in harmony with the EU’s food safety rules, but implementation remains an issue.
More and more Turks are insisting on hygienic food as income and education levels increase. Consumer rights have expanded, and retailers know their liabilities. Supermarket chains are now involved in testing at the factory level to ensure customers are protected. Where Turkey especially excels is food processing, a sector that is one of the world’s 10 largest. The relatively young industry means it has the latest technology and a large number of experts. “Because Turkey has such a large agricultural sector that is so critical to its economy, its food safety performance surpasses many EU nations, especially in the food processing business,” Saner said.
In July 2013 the MFAL also updated its regulatory framework to introduce stricter rules for food preservatives, banning flavour and colour additives for meat and meat products. That followed new guidance for breadmakers to include less salt and more bran. Concerns still persist over the use of additives in Turkish olives, bread and tomato paste, but Saner said it is important not to single out any one food but rather regulate against the misuse of additives in all foods. “When used properly, additives should not be feared. At home, we all use salt or baking soda in our cakes; those are additives, too. The issue is using the right material in the correct way,” he said.
The biggest threat to food safety is posed by unlabelled or unpackaged foods as it lacks oversight, said Saner. In Turkey, the only truly safe harbour is packaged food with the MFAL’s stamp of approval. “A key issue is communicating risk, because there is a great deal of disinformation out there, such as unpackaged milk being preferable or that all industrial products are harmful. This confuses consumers. So the authorities need to be more proactive on this front,” said Saner.
Out in the Field
However, safety begins in the field, and Turkey’s fragmented farm structure makes it hard for small-scale operators to set aside the funds necessary to ensure safety or for expertise to develop. “We need more organised farming in the field, which will allow for tighter official controls,” Saner said.
The latest EU progress report did reflect lingering dissatisfaction with food safety standards dealing with livestock and animal products. While noting work on identification and registration of bovines had expanded, and mass vaccination with strict movement on controls between Thrace and Anatolia had continued, the 2014 study said further progress was required to meet acquis standards. “Significant work is needed for the adaptation of the animal by-products sector to the new rules and the full implementation of these. Inspection funding arrangements have not yet been aligned with the EU system” the report said.
Sinan Öğün, head of the Middle East Sustainable Livestock Production, Biotechnology and Agro-Ecology Research and Development Centre at Zirve University in Gaziantep, said Turkey still has a long way to go in improving safety in the meat business. “Food safety in the meat sector could best be described as poor. The slaughter and the post-handling process is often unsanitary and inadequate, resulting in a shortened shelf life for meat products,” Öğün told OBG. “One major supermarket chain has told me that their annual discarded meat products amount to TL5.5m ($1.94m), which, obviously, is also reflected in the price. Identification and traceability are also very inadequate and unreliable in the livestock sector, making the fight to improve animal health also very difficult.”
Still, perceptions of Turkey’s food industry have improved vastly as the industry matures. The EU’s clean bill of health for tomatoes will yield knock-on effects. For one, it promotes other products Turkey ships to the EU. Besides tomatoes, other main fresh produce Turkey sells to the bloc are hazelnuts, cherries, sweet peppers and cucumbers. And it raises confidence in other, non-EU markets, such as Russia, Ukraine and Moldova, which have become major recipients of Turkish tomatoes in recent years.