Dozens of Estonian school canteens are facing the risk of being shut down beginning January if they fail to meet rigorous EU safety requirements in the next two months.
As of October 2002, only 30 out of 645 school canteens in Estonia had the mandatory food safety certificate, which all must have beginning in 2003.
According to the Health Protection Inspectorate, 75 percent of the school canteens adhere to all food safety rules and are likely to receive the necessary license.
"Only 179 school canteens do not meet the requirements. The rest are OK, but may be afraid of the certification tests," said Tiiu Aro, head of the inspectorate.
Most of the canteens that will have problems with certification are located in the northeast region of the country.
Aro added that school headmasters are the only people who are obligated and have the right to apply for certification.
A canteen without the certificate may face a 50,000 kroons fine. Should evidence surface that a canteen is dangerous to the kids, it will be closed.
The food safety requirements did not appear overnight. The respective law has been in force since 1999. All cafes, restaurants and canteens were given a transition period from 1999 to 2003.
The problem of school canteens grabbed the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Social Affairs last week. The three ministers personally called the schools to get them to think about the future of their canteens.
Jaanus Marrandi, agriculture minister, said the canteens must get over their fear of certification. "The aim of the food safety regulations is to guarantee kids have safe catering conditions, and not to leave anyone without lunch," he said.
According to the Education Ministry, the local government hires school headmasters, and the ministry itself cannot order them to apply for canteen certification. Each school hires cooks or signs a contract with a catering company that uses the school kitchen.
Fortunately, as the certification deadline approaches, local governments have begun to realize that investments in schools canteens are inevitable, according to Aro.
Investments into canteen reconstruction in Tallinn alone may reach about two million kroons for each of the city's 105 schools. Only three school canteens in the capital were certified as of October 2002, according to the Health Protection Inspectorate.