The Albanian Meat Story – A Practical Argument for EU Membership

The European Union is, these days, not the world’s most popular supranational institution. The 28-member block’s economic problems aside, activity in Brussels is increasingly viewed as disconnected from the daily lives of EU citizens. The resultant, superficially appealing, calculus is thus perhaps something like, “if EU membership does nothing to improve my lived daily reality, and seems to tangibly worsen the macroeconomic performance of my country, what on earth is the point of keeping it?” And yet, just as countries on the inside like France have seen public support for the EU project fall to historically low levels, countries on the outside like Albania continue to demonstrate near-universal support for attaining membership.

In fact, in a major foreign policy success for Prime Minister Edi Rama, Albania was granted official candidate status this past June, and, coincidentally, I found myself visiting the country just over a month later.* And, perched at a high-top table in a restaurant on Avni Rustemi Square in Tirana, enjoying a noon-time beer before my afternoon bus to Ioannina, Greece, I witnessed an impromptu delineation of one area in which Albania can expect to gain significantly from eventual EU accession: E. coli prevention.

Like many restaurants in Tirana, this one specialized in two things: beer and qofte (more or less an Albanian cevapi). While nursing my Birra Korça I witnessed deliveries of both, and while the former showed up in regular kegs, the latter’s method of introduction was slightly more unusual.

A man walked in with a plastic grocery bag in each hand – each bag was filled with raw, unpackaged qofte. The bags were set down next to the grill, and the man left. A waiter (the one who served me my beer, as it happens) immediately materialized and, without washing his hands, plunged them into the bags of meat in order to distribute the qofte on the adjacent grill. Once the meat was successfully (though who knows if it was strategically?) arranged, the waiter immediately went to deliver finished orders, take new ones, serve beers, and make change. His hands’ operative progression was something like this: kilos worth of raw meat -> EVERYTHING ELSE!

Tirana natives must have unusually high E. coli tolerances. But for the rest of us…oof. I have only a superficial belief in germ theory and I’ve been known to say, “if you can’t see it, it can’t hurt you,” but that was enough to make even me a little glad I hadn’t ordered lunch, too.** Luckily, the EU has rules about this sort of thing.*** Obviously there are a lot of moving parts between an EU regulation, its implementation by member states, and subsequent enforcement, but an Albania which is also an EU member means an Albania in which there exists at the very least a formal mechanism for licensing food service establishments which takes into account things like whether or not employees are trained in a way that includes informing them that you can’t rub your hands on raw meat and then touch everything else in the restaurant. Considering where the country is now, even a formal mechanism like that would be a significant improvement.**** I doubt Albanians’ enthusiasm for EU membership is predicated on anything as boring as food safety regulation, but it’s at least one area in which one imagines they can expect to see a meaningful improvement at the experiential level of daily life. And it’s a nice reminder of what a powerful, albeit boring, force the European Union can be.

*Disclaimer: I loved Tirana and Albania and I am eager to visit again – what follows is not motivated by anti-Albanian sentiment!
**Noooo, I kid, of course I believe in germ theory. But I am perhaps less squeamish about that sort of thing than many. Maybe it’s an over-correction for never being allowed to eat cookie dough as a kid because of the raw eggs
***See Annex II for the most useful bits
****Food safety is a real concern in the country, and the regulatory agency with oversight responsibility has only existed for five years