01 July 2006

828) Turkish Food Ban Reflects Political Concerns in Armenia

Turkish food has remained popular in Armenia despite the hostile diplomatic relationship, but it has been banned ostensibly for health reasons.

By Arpi Harutiunyan in Yerevan (CRS No. 346, 30-June-06)

“Don’t buy Turkish sunflower seeds,” Nelly told her friend Armine as they stood in a shop in Yerevan. “I’ve heard they cause sterility.”
“Are you serious? “The Turkish ones are so tasty,” said Armine, still wavering. In the end, she reconsidered, “All right, give me two packs of Armenian seeds.”

Fears that Turkish food products could cause various illnesses and disorders have grown into a wave of hysteria in Armenia that seems to be as least politically driven as it is based on real health concerns.

Officially at least, the sale of Turkish foodstuffs has been illegal since May, when the Armenian trade and economic development ministry imposed what it said would be a temporary ban on certifying food products imported from Turkey.

Some Turkish-made grocery products can still be found in the shops and markets, but officials say they have either been smuggled into the country, or brought in legally as part of travellers’ normal duty-free allowance.

At a political level, the relationship between Armenia and Turkey is coldly hostile – their shared border is sealed and they have no diplomatic relations. Ankara cut off all ties with Armenia because of that country’s role in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan, with which the Turks enjoy a good relationship based on their common ethnic background.

Yet for the last 15 years, imported Turkish foodstuffs – transported via Georgia - have continued to account for a sizeable chunk of groceries sales in Armenia.

There seems to be little scientific reason to single Turkish foodstuffs out now, since many of the problems - variable standards and some cases of contamination - apply to domestic products and other imports.

Officials in Armenia deny they are singling out Turkish products. But government officials and consumers’ rights groups have mounted a concerted campaign culminating in the certification ban and calls for a boycott.

The state agency for state quality control concluded this year that some Turkish goods “violated consumers’ rights” and were at variance with Armenian law.

Trade ministry spokesperson Anahit Khechoian said the move to bar Turkish products was prompted mainly by customer complaints about “suspicious foodstuffs of unknown origin”. But the ministry has also offered another explanation – that the ban is to prevent the spread of the deadly bird flu virus.

A non-government organisation called Protection of Consumers’ Rights claimed to have found that five out of ten food imports they tested - nine from Turkey and one from Iran - contained harmful ingredients. In particular, the group said it discovered bacilli in some products and unacceptable levels of yeast in others.

Biochemist Anahit Davtyan says bacteria get into foodstuffs made in unhygienic conditions or stored at the wrong temperature, and can cause dysentery and other infectious diseases including typhoid.

Abgar Yeghoyan, the head of Protection of Consumers’ Rights, made dark hints that contamination could be introduced deliberately by Armenia’s enemies.

“Food safety is one element of national security,” he said. “Given the region we live in and the laws we have, there’s no guarantee we won’t be poisoned.”

The head of the trade ministry’s standards office, Robert Dayan, suggested that the gap left by “questionable” Turkish imports would be filled by “high-quality Armenian goods”.

Some consumer advocates, though, say Armenian-made products need closer inspection as well, since many lack proper labelling and have quality problems.

“We’ve been talking incessantly about the foodstuff safety problem, but the first thing we should worry about is the local produce,” said Armen Poghosyan, who leads the Consumers’ Association. “If I were to assess the extent to which food safety is guaranteed on the Armenian market, I’d say quite seriously that there are virtually no guarantees.”

In one recent incident in early in June, bottles of an Armenian brand of mineral water suddenly started exploding one after another in a Yerevan shop. Customers and sales staff rushed out of the shop to avoid the flying glass. In this case the problems was traced to faulty bottle manufacture.

Poghosyan’s association says that a study conducted in November 2005 found that 64 per cent of locally-produced food items lacked proper information about contents, nutritional value and expiry date.

Rather than deal with wider quality problems, officials may have found it simpler to blame Turkish imports because of underlying emotive issues about the country’s politics.

One indication of this was a recent scandal in which it was claimed that a brand of Turkish chocolate on sale in the shops was actually being made by a subsidiary based in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan with which Armenia is still technically in a state of war.

To add insult to injury, an Armenian confectionary producer ran TV advertisements warning that the offending chocolate bars contained vegetable fats, rather than milk as stated on the label.

Arpi Harutiunyan is a reporter at Armenianow Weekly.

http://www.iwpr.net/?p=rca&s=f&o=321935&apc_state=henh


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