After long delays Estonia's first meat processor looks set to start exporting to the European Union, but other processors are nervous at the prospect of EU inspections and possible closure if they fail. Having been inspected by officials from the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, Villem Lihakaup is expected to be the first meat processor to receive a license from Brussels.
First though the commission has to approve Estonia itself as a source of meat imports, which may happen later this month.
Kalev Villem, manager of the company, declared delight at the result.
"We have done everything we could to get the approval," said Villem. "The law requires there to be enough space for production, that it should be easily washable and sufficiently well lit - the inspectors usually demand the maximum."
Villem Lihakaup, which produces venison, boar and goat, is now a model for other processors who under the recently passed Food Act have until Jan. 1 to gain approval by Estonia's Veterinary and Food Board which will apply EU standards.
Companies which fail to come up to scratch will face closure, although a long backlog in inspections is inevitable, predicted Villem.
Ago Partel, head of the Estonian Veterinary and Food Board, declined to predict how many processing companies might in practice face the chop.
"It all depends on the money. It is possible to do everything necessary in a couple of months," said Partel.
Once the system is properly up and running it is expected Estonia could administer it alone, without experts from Brussels visiting each company which applies for a license.
Of the other Baltic countries, no Latvian meat processor has yet been licensed by the European Commission while several in Lithuania have.
Villem expressed optimism about the prospects for selling specialized products on the EU market. Venison in particular is highly sought after in the EU, even if Estonians tend to turn their noses up at it, said Partel. "Our consumption traditions are less developed," he told The Baltic Times.
Villem estimated that Estonian hunters who supply the company would be able to earn some 10 million kroons (641,000 euros) during the 10-week annual hunting season.
Out of a total 10,000 elks, 3,500 are hunted each year, of which 1,000 are currently processed by Villem Lihakaup.
According to analysts, companies next in line to get the new licenses include Rakvere Lihakombinaat, Woro Kommerts, Tallegg, Valga Lihatoostus and Saaremaa Liha-ja Piimatoostus.
But most processors continue to be mystified by the process of applying to Brussels, said Olle Horm, board chairman at Rakvere Lihakombinaat.
"Unfortunately we lack our own lobby group in Brussels," Horm said.
While Estonian dairy and fish processing industries have been exporting to the EU for some time it has taken much longer to bring the meat sector into line, commented Peeter Grigorjev, president of the Estonian Meat Association.
For a long time Estonia lacked a proper waste management system for the industry. Other types of investment required have also been costly and returns have been low, said Grigorjev.
The industry is intrinsically less profitable than other agricultural areas such as dry milk production for which there is a big market in the EU, he added.