Estonia's food industry's associations are protesting against the government's plan to postpone the deadline set for food industries to bring production in accordance with the Food Act.
According to the associations, giving weaker companies another year to catch up would give them unfair advantages vis-a-vis those companies that have invested millions of kroons in modernizing production.
"We do not want any changes in the law," said Peeter Grigorjev, managing director of the Estonian Meat Association. "The companies were given an equal opportunity - three years - to bring their production in accordance with the Food Act. Where do they expect to find the resources so late? Instead, it would create unhealthy competition if we let them survive."
Valdur Noormagi, head of the Estonian Fishery Association, said that some fisheries had even thought of suing the state.
"The current law enables to close small fisheries that have been set up in a garage somewhere. The state has a good chance to regulate the market. It is a stupid state if it does not use this opportunity," said Noormagi.
Representatives of the Estonian Dairy Association, the Estonian Bakery Association and the Estonian Society of Merchants told The Baltic Times that they favor the current deadline.
The new government bill, which foresees giving another year for companies to improve their sanitary conditions, was initiated by the coalition partners - the Reform Party and the Center Party - in mid-October.
The second reading of the bill would take place in December.
Urmas Laht, one of the authors of the bill, said that several companies only required minor investments, like roads and fences, and they would therefore need a different approach.
Laht said that if Estonia were to approve these companies and EU inspectors found shortcomings, Estonia could create problems for itself in the negotiation process with the European Union.
This is precisely why a temporary approval should be given, he said.
Laht said that the conditions set for official approval, agreed upon in 1999, had proven too difficult for over 40 percent of the companies, and that they will not make the Jan. 1, 2003, deadline.
"I should admit that the obligations were too high for such a short time," he said. "The changes to the bill should have been discussed already a year ago, when first signs appeared of companies not being able to meet the deadlines."
Food associations' representatives said that it was actually the state's own mistakes that led to amending the law. In their estimation, about two-thirds of the state-owned school canteens could be closed down. A number of small shops in the countryside are also in danger.
"The most serious problems are undoubtedly related to the shops and school canteens," Laht admitted. "According to different estimations, over 75 percent of the school canteens have fulfilled the necessary requirements; only the technical documentation work has to be finished."
The Food Act has been adopted according to EU directives and would partly pave the way to exporting to EU markets. The Estonian Veterinary and Food Board includes a company in its list, and the European Commission then decides about the export license.
Licenses for fisheries and dairies have been given out automatically, because the board has shown its competence in inspecting these sectors. The meat industry has not yet received an export license as EU inspectors will have to visit each company individually.
The food industries' associations, together with the Veterinary and Food Board, have already thought of a solution - to separate restaurants, shops and food processing industries from under one common law.
According to the board, small meat-processing companies are in the worst position, with only 26 percent currently approved by the board.
Ago Partel, head of the Estonian Veterinary and Food Board, believes half of the small meat industries would be approved by year's end.
According to Partel's estimates, 12 out of 43 dairies, 2 out of 16 big meat processors, 69 out of 151 small meat processors, 34 out of 114 fisheries, 117 out of 326 non-meat processors, and 106 out of 335 warehouses would be closed down.