Food control without controlled labs

Foto: CIN

When they are done analyzing food, on watch against micotoxins and impurities, workers from the Veterinary Institute in Mostar rinse out test tubes in a sink in front of the water closets and dry them on a yellow plastic filter with patches of black mold at the bottom.

The Veterinary Institute of Zenica, where the hygiene of food sold in that city is tested, was housed until 2005 in quarters so cramped that one donor, GTZ of Germany, balked at giving it expensive equipment out of fear it would end up in a water closet.

Employees of the Scientific Institute of Veterinary Medicine in Mostar wash equipment in the hallway in front of the toilet.

Laboratories that residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina rely on to guard against the contamination of their food supply are operating in tight and inadequate premises with old equipment and hygiene problems of their own.

BiH authorities cannot say with certainty which labs are doing a good job and which might need to be closed down. There are few standards that labs must adhere to, and no consequences if they do their job poorly. No one has been in change of overseeing these facilities, which are key to insuring that food we eat is safe.

The Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) in August sent samples taken from restaurants, markets and shops to the State Veterinary School in Sarajevo as part of an examination of food safety in BiH. Reporters then began asking questions about labs around the country that should be part of regular inspection and checking of food for sale.

CIN found that food certified as safe by these labs may be, but there is no guarantee.

How many labs are there?

It is not even clear how many labs there are. The two entity ministries of trade, health and of agriculture and the Department of Health in Brčko District all issue permits allowing labs to operate. At some point, a new BiH Food Safety Ageny is to take over permitting. But for now, CIN had to compile information from these seven offices in locating 36 labs.

The Federal Ministry of Trade has information that, in the Federation of BiH, 14 labs work on checking food quality. But chief market inspector Jasna Bradvica said she couldn’t say which were for-profit and privately owned and which were government-owned.

Her colleague from the FBiH Ministry of Health, chief sanitary inspector Nijaz Uzunović, said that that ministry only gave permits to the entity Institute for Public Health and 10 cantonal institutes. He said he knew nothing about private labs.

Foto: CIN

The FBiH Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for veterinary laboratories, which analyze food quality, but Assistant Minister for Food Issues Vedad Hadžimusić says he didn’t have a list of labs. ‘Nobody has that list’ he said.

Spokesmen for the RS Ministry of Trade said it doesn’t issue work permits to labs for food checking, and for the RS Ministry of Health that they know only about the Institute for Protection of Health in the RS and regional laboratories the institute controls.

The RS Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry and Water said food of animal origin is analyzed by Dr. Vaso Butozan of the Veterinary Institute in the RS and the Veterinary Institute in Bijeljina.

In Brčko, a microbiology lab for food control holds a permit.

‘How many are there, I don’t know. Who knows how many there are?’ the director of the Agency for Food Safety in BiH, Sead Mačkić, dismissed the question.

There are no set rules on how many labs there ought to be per number of citizens.

Mirko Raše, director of Eroinspekt, said his firm contracts with labs in Mostar to analyze samples.

But lack of regulation is so extreme that the federal Ministry of Trade list of laboratories include a private food quality controller called Eroinspekt from Ljubuški, which has no lab at all.

Director Mirko Raše said Eroinspekt contracts with the Mostar public health institutes to analyze samples that trade inspectors from the borders deliver to Eroinspekt.

Inspector Bradvica and she saw no problem with that common practice. Drago Nedić, an assistant to the RS minister of agriculture, suggested telling the public and seeing what the reaction was.

What does it take to get a permit?

Even having a permit is no guarantee a lab does quality work. It’s not clear what standards a controller or a laboratory must meet in order to be certified.

Bradvica said equipment and expert staff is necessary, but the Law on Food Products Control doesn’t spell out what equipment or what expertise.

‘Our obligation is not to determine what the actual equipment is. Every owner must show and prove that he fulfils the requirements. Special equipment is not defined’ said Bradvica.

In mid-2004, the State Veterinary Office of BiH set the conditions to which at least the seven veterinary institutes charged with health diagnostic and food testing must adhere. They are required to set aside rooms for receiving and preparing samples, for preparing laboratory bases, for washing and sterilizing lab dishes, for keeping processed material, for preparing reports, and storing supplies. They also must reserve space for employee relaxation and sanitary facilities. Other rules define the equipment and expert staff the labs must have.

But in visits to the veterinary institutes, CIN reporters found one lab room being used for multiple purposes.

Muhamed Gladan, director of the Veterinary Institute in Zenica, which since last year has operated in a well-equipped, clean and modern facility, said one can always find something out of compliance.

‘All the time, somebody is putting up new conditions’ he said. ‘Tomorrow, there will be a rule which disallows ceramic tiles. Then, I will have to tell the minister that everything we gave a lot of money for should be destroyed.’

Cross-checking and inspecting are rare

A bigger problem than old facilities is lack of certainty about the results of lab testing. There is little cross-checking, or testing of laboratory results, or facility inspections. Referent labs in charge of a super analysis don’t exist in BiH.

‘Until the moment we get accredited, nobody ever cared what we do, how do we do it’ said Nedim Brdarić, chief of the cantonal Veterinary Station Laboratory in Sarajevo. ‘You have laboratories which nobody ever visits.’

The Institute for Accreditation in Sarajevo (BATA) in recent years accredited three labs in the country and does oversee their work and results. But the law does not require this higher degree of assurance that accreditation affords.

Representatives of all the non-accredited labs say they too are inspected — by the ministries that gave them permits. But the ministries deny this.

‘It’s not my jurisdiction’ says inspector Uzunović.

Inspector Bradvica sees no need for control. ‘It would be like a professor giving a student a passing grade and then somebody asks, does that student know enough for a passing grade?’

‘It is the truth that nobody controls them’ says Zoran Đerić, the former chief veterinary inspector in RS, who is now deputy director of the Food Safety Agency.

‘It is a catastrophe’ said Ibrahim Šehić, the chief inspector in Mostar. Without controls, he sees nothing to stop a lab that needs revenue from writing up the results that people paying for samples to be tested want to see.

Đerić said some irregularities have been found in work by some labs. ‘There were cases when various scams were attempted in order to forge analysis, or to get them quick and dirty’ he said.

Wasted equipment and shortages

Because labs around the country operate in so decentralized a fashion, there is no overall strategy for equipping them adequately, or even accurate knowledge about what labs need. Better coordination might lead to sharing of equipment. Currently, expensive donated equipment is sitting unused in some labs even though another could use it.

Donated equipment goes unused in the Scientific Institute of Veterinary Medicine in Zenica.

The cantonal Veterinary Station in Sarajevo, for example, has equipment worth tens of thousands of KM, for checking honey. Last year it received two samples of honey to test.

In the Veterinary Institute in Zenica, a microscope sits unused in its original packaging, a gift from GTZ. Director Gladan said it will be put to use when he can get a nice table for it.

Jozo Bagarić, director of the State Veterinary Office, said labs will not get equipment from his office. It is more economical for labs to share work and to spread out equipment where needed, he said.

As a result of the lack of standards and varying equipment and methodologies, analyses done by different labs do not always match.

‘Not all labs have the same methods. They don’t have the same equipment’ said Sarajevo cantonal sanitary inspector Osman Kapetanović. ‘Somebody gets Dutch organic equipment, somebody Siemens. Everybody has their way of reading pathological values.’

Accreditation no solution

Not everyone believes that accreditation by a central agency is a solution. Critics say accreditation is a waste of time and money if the agency doing the accrediting has no international standing. BATA does not.

The three labs that bothered with accrediting, said Marijo Perc, national coordinator for food, in the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations, have no increased stature outside BiH.

The Food Safety Agencz plans to ask for a neutral international agency to accredit BATA, according to representatives.

In the meantime, people counting on labs to prevent unhygienic food reaching markets and restaurants have only the guarantee that Milan Andrijanić, director of the Mostar Veterinary Institute, described: his lab staff’s ‘longtime service, their face and honesty.’