PRAGUE - Poor food and animal hygiene standards are among the biggest problems facing many of the countries that will enter the European Union in less than six months' time.
In a report on the progress being made by the new members this week the European Commission had harsh words for all 10 of them - Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Six of the countries were given formal warnings requiring them to take urgent steps to remedy food safety problems before the accession date of May 1, 2004.
Most of these were former Soviet-bloc states that are having trouble applying EU hygiene standards, among the highest in the world. For example, wholesale slaughterhouses are often antiquated and lack cold stores, with a consequent risk of the spread of dangerous bacteria such as salmonella.
In Poland only 121 businesses in the meat industry out of approximately 4,000 are recognized as fully meeting EU norms by the Agriculture Ministry. Figures elsewhere are better but far from satisfactory: in Slovakia only 40 percent of slaughterhouses met EU norms at the end of October.
Milk production is another area of concern, though standards have risen with the massive arrival of foreign investment. In Poland only 12 percent of dairies meet EU requirements.
Almost everywhere there is inadequate inspection. Shortages of funds mean that biological surveys are rare, meaning cereals, fruit and vegetables often contain too many pesticide residues. Veterinary services in Lithuania, Poland and Malta are too thinly stretched to combat effectively such conditions as mad-cow disease.
Even if the controls are in place the results are far from ideal. "Many inspectors still work as they did under communism. They don't worry about details, yet in this business detail is very important," said Daniel Hach, a European Commission expert in Bratislava.
But several of the newcomers have already started taking radical steps.
"Firms that don't meet EU hygiene standards will be closed on Jan. 1, 2004, four months before the joining date," said the Czech Agriculture Ministry.
Poland has negotiated a transition period of two to three years for several hundred businesses, during which they will not be allowed to sell to other EU states, though they can continue to supply other countries - such as Algeria, Poland's main client for dairy products.