Food Quality Questioned at Economic Forum

Food Quality Questioned at Economic Forum

Published: July 11, 2012 (Issue # 1717)


Consumers are becoming increasingly discerning about what they eat.

Food sales trends and eating habits may sound like an unlikely item for discussion at an international economic conference, but according to Ferran Adria, the world-renowned Catalan chef whose revolutionary approach to cooking gained his restaurant E Bulli on the Costa Brava the title of the most sought after restaurant on the planet, it is a highly topical subject.

Speaking at the Innovation in Food debate at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum last month, Adria argued that food was perhaps one of the thorniest topics of the summit.

“Food is a strategic matter — everything we do on a daily basis is dependent on food, and not simply because we need to eat to be able to move and think,” he said. “Many of the most important industries are linked in some way to food production or food consumption.

“There are seven billion people on this planet, and two billion of them are starving,” Adria said. “Everyone claims they want the best food available, but the truth is that there are very few rich people. Most people have to make ends meet with around $1,000 per month. I do agree that organic chicken is wonderful but I cannot campaign among ordinary people to buy it because it costs $40 per kilogram, which is beyond most customers’ reach. The goal is not to make Dom Perignon champagne available to everyone — that is not realistic — but to make your average wine from the local supermarket of a decent quality.”

In Russia, the issue is at present far more simple: There just has to be enough food for everyone, said Ilya Shestakov, deputy Agriculture Minister.

“The number one task for the Russian government now is to create fair conditions for the country’s farmers, to ensure equality in entering the market and to build storage facilities accessible for all players on the market,” he said.

“Russian farmers do not use genetically modified ingredients, and what the country’s customers want most is food that is free of such ingredients. Indeed, it is unfair that the stores in Russia are still stocked with foreign goods that are full of dangerous stuff.”

At the same time, Shestakov admitted that Russia had made a mistake when it changed the system of quality control on food products that existed in the Soviet Union and featured detailed state standards and requirements for all products.

“We replaced it with a very basic system of so-called technical regulations in an effort to avoid bureaucracy, but ended up with a system that allows a vast flow of poor quality goods to enter the market on perfectly justified grounds,” he said.

Consumers not only in Russia but globally are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about the use of genetically modified ingredients. A positive trend is that this has forced retailers and large food production companies to set their sights on local farmers, who produce more expensive but better quality products.

Zein Abdalla, the chief executive officer for Pepsico Europe, which is responsible for popular Russian brands such as Domik V Derevne, Chudo, Fruktovy Sad and BioMax, said the company has made it a priority to rely on local resources as much as possible.

“When we started in Russia, we had to import almost all products, but now we feel safe using local companies,” he said. “It is now crucially important for us to get involved in production, to work with chefs to develop new flavors.

“We have grown to realize that we now need to aggregate several small local producers to be able to ensure we get the best ingredients,” Abdalla added.

Vadim Lapin, co-owner of Ginza Project restaurant group, which unites some of the city’s most successful restaurants, including Mansarda, Francesco and Moskva, said that clients are becoming more demanding and often express an interest in the origins of the ingredients of dishes.

“Diners often want to know not only the country of origin of, say, salmon or beef, they ask if they are getting a farm-grown or wild salmon, if the beef is likely to contain any hormones, and if the pastures are located in a clean area free from industrial pollution,” Lapin said.

Russian farmers have become more active recently in reaching out to consumers and creating opportunities for local residents to order food online. Online shops, which have been becoming increasingly popular, help farmers not only to get exposure but also to significantly cut costs, as the farmers do not have to deal with retailers and markets.

In the meantime, Sergei Yakhnyuk, deputy governor of the Leningrad Oblast, is lobbying for the creation of a “Made in the Leningrad Oblast” brand that would both unite the most reliable local farmers and promote their produce.

“The goal is to give locals the best and most varied choice and provide exposure to farmers who produce high quality dairy products, meat, fruit and vegetables,” Yakhnyuk said.

As the official stressed, the existing food distribution system is flawed: Farmers have to pay so-called “bonuses” to hypermarkets to get them interested in buying their products. The practice is seen as nothing short of legalized bribery by the farmers.

“In local food retail, the share of hypermarkets nears 80 percent, and the bonuses practice makes it extremely difficult for farmers to stay afloat, let alone make a profit and develop,” Yakhnyuk said.

The St. Petersburg Union of Food Producers supported the idea of creating a “Made in the Leningrad Oblast” brand.

“With Russia joining the Word Trade Organization, it is especially important to support domestic producers, especially regional farmers, and inform locals about quality food products that are made in the city and its surrounding region,” said Igor Podlipentsev, vice president of the St. Petersburg Union of Food Producers.

According to Podlipentsev, almost 60 percent of food products sold in Russia today are imported.

“It is not uncommon for retailers to go for the easiest option of relying on cheap imported goods, which are often of questionable quality,” the expert said.

“The price appears to be the key issue, and this approach harms both Russian consumers and Russian farmers.”

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