Nothing New under the Balkan Sun, Part I: Meat Safety

Astute readers will  no doubt be aware that this is not the first post to include the word ‘meat’ in its title. Last summer, after observing some questionable food service practices at a restaurant in Tirana (E. coli everywhere!), I suggested that, while many citizens in EU countries find it difficult to identify tangible benefits stemming from Brussels’ massive bureaucracy, here was a case in which the European Union would have an obvious and positive, albeit slightly mundane, effect. It is easy to dismiss Brussels as overly-concerned with the arcana of regulation (most legendarily, regarding the curvature of cucumbers) in ways that make it increasingly irrelevant to daily lives of EU inhabitants, but in fact food safety in Albania is a real problem, and the process of EU accession will require Albania to implement a far more robust regulatory capacity for the production and sale of food products than it currently maintains.

What makes this worth mentioning now, again, is the recent discovery that this is actually not a terribly new phenomenon. Not that specifically the European Union has been influencing Albanian meat-handling regulations for decades or centuries – no, that is not true and anyway obviously a-historical – the possibility of an EU with Albania in it is an extremely recent one. But consider the following, from page 249 of Lampe & Jackson‘s Balkan Economic History, 1550-1950: From Imperial Borderlands to Developing Nations:

Meat-packing lacked much domestic potential but was by far the best Balkan prospect for a processed food export to a rapidly growing European market…The German-educated Serbian engineer, Miloš Savčić, was able to construct a plant meeting European sanitary specifications by 1897. Yet it had little capacity to produce sausage and other seasoned produce that offered the best prospects for selling the relatively lower quality meat of Serbian hogs on a European market which, outside of Austria-Hungary, offered less and less of a market for salted pork.

Certainly the country in question is different – Serbia, not Albania – and there was no European Union in 1897. But if you abstract away the specifics and instead give each scenario a plausible abstract description, what you get in both cases is a country in South East Europe adjusting its food production standards to better match European ones in the pursuit of greater market access. The process is slightly indirect in the Albanian case, because EU accession (and thus access to the EU single market) comes as a function of implementing the acquis communautaire in its entirety, and thus one could perhaps reasonably argue that even areas without obvious economic import are reformed “in the pursuit of greater access”. But the two situations’ general similarity remains. A lot has changed (I mean, I assume) since Savčić set up his factory in 1897, but the presence of “Europe” as an aspirational concept for Balkan states is remarkably persistent.