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Hungarian pork: not as rosy as it used to be

Grey market players have been gaining increasing ground in the meat industry, to the detriment of transparent producers. Technological development has been lacking for years, and food safety issues have further tarnished the image of Hungary’s once world-famous pork products.

Grey market players have been gaining increasing ground in the meat industry, to the detriment of transparent producers. Technological development has been lacking for years, and food safety issues have further tarnished the image of Hungary’s once world-famous pork products.

Here we go again: one year after the National Food Chain Safety Office (NÉBIH) was set up, it needs to explain how horse meat DNA could get its way into several Hungarian beef products under its scrutiny. Hungarian meat eaters are not unfamiliar with such scandals: relabeled spoilt meat, carefully washed before being reboxed, as well as poultry with feces on it were found on the shelves of some Tesco hypermarkets in mid-March. The authorities spotted neither of the problems; an independent German food safety lab discovered the former, while the latter was revealed by anonymous Tesco whistleblowers who informed the press. While giving an account of NÉBIH’s activities at the annual press conference of the Hungarian Meat Industry Federation (MHSz) last week, Endre Kardeván, a state secretary at the Rural Development Ministry (FVM), did not mention this. In his recap, Hungary fared well in food safety terms thanks, in great extent, to the revamped food safety agency. Finding violations in 5.8% of 76,747 examined/inspected establishments does not sound much. Yet there were 33,000 more places that remained unchecked.

In all fairness, NÉBIH is not to blame for all food safety issues. The food chain is international and even though there is a paper trail, a product’s exact origin is often hard to trace back. The common European platform, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASF), where countries register any food safety issues, does not give timely information as member states take their time updating it.

Where NÉBIH could do more is in the way it punishes those that flout the regulations. Since it teamed up with the National Tax and Customs Authority (NAV), it claims to be more efficient, yet no single year has been exempt from a major food chain scandal.

Tamás Éder, president of MHSz, favors more severe penalties. The Hungarian meat industry is so contaminated by scandals involving players in the grey market that successfully operating transparently is becoming extremely difficult. “Not only do they spoil the industry’s image, they also dodge taxes, thus becoming more competitive.” High costs, with a VAT rate of 27% topping the list, are the major causes for structural shortcomings, according to Éder. (MHSz and other food industry members have been lobbying for a VAT reduction for years. Parliament is discussing such a proposal from the FVM in its current session.) The industry is fragmented, most slaughterhouses have not invested in their machinery for years, plus they have to share a declining hog stock – under four million in 2012 according to preliminary estimates. “In Germany, 170 registered slaughterhouses cut 50 million [animals] per year while we have 120 [slaughterhouses] for less than one tenth of that number,” Éder said. What’s more disturbing is that, by Éder’s account, the technological level of most Hungarian establishments is on a par with mediocre European norms at best.

Whether it is this or a succession of alarming food scandals that are more to blame for the fall in Hungary’s processed food exports is unknown. Probably both. In 2012, for the first time in several years, the country’s pig imports increased, while the volume of its processed meat exports dropped.