Irina Hecht: "Manufacturers of counterfeit goods have gone so far that we won't be able to cope with them without security forces"

Interview by Vladimir Nesterov. Exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza
Irina Hecht: "Manufacturers of counterfeit goods have gone so far that we won't be able to cope with them without security forces"

The guest of the Tribune program, Deputy Chairwoman of the Federation Council Committee on Agrarian and Food Policy and Environmental Management, the senator from the Chelyabinsk region Irina Hecht.

- The theme of today's program is food safety. Are there much counterfeit alcohol production on the Russian market? And what is basically counterfeited?

- Alcohol is basically counterfeited. Various sources give different data: sources close to the authorities estimate it at about 30%, and independent ones up to 60%. The margin for this product is high, the temptation to counterfeit these drinks is also high. Six regions of Russia have suffered from surrogate alcohol that caused concern at the level of the public and of the Federation Council. The last parliamentary hour was devoted to regulating the market of alcoholic beverages and restoring order there. It should lead to the legal sale of drinks produced in our country. The issue caused heated discussion, ending with decisions on tightening monitoring, as well as an parliamentary inquiry into the anti-corruption committee regarding the affiliation of the head of Rosalkogolregulirovanie Igor Chuyana with structures engaged in the selling of alcohol. After a week, the Investigative Committee called for tightening of penalties for poisoning due to consumption of surrogate alcohol, equating it with murder. If earlier it was qualified as death by negligence, so today the Investigative Committee proposed starting to consider it as 'murder'. Probably that's right.

The situation has got so far. Perhaps we won't be able to cope with it without the security forces, as well as without a toughening of administrative and criminal measures.The role of the public in this process is also high. It is necessary to monitor the products which are supplied to shops, the level of civic consciousness is not so high for this. However, the process has to be mutual. On the one hand, there is the increasing of the state's responsibility, on the other hand, there is the community's reciprocal measure, which keeps track of what occurs in daily practice.

- It has recently been proposed in the walls of the Federation Council to introduce a state monopoly on alcohol production. Is it realistic to nationalize some distilleries in order to regain a monopoly on alcohol?

The monopoly of the state is in the form of excise duty. If the appropriate control is adjusted, then the situation will develop in a different way. It’s no coincidence that Valentina Ivanovna [Matviyenko] asked Chuyanov the following question: "Why did you give so many brands to Karachay-Cherkessia without receiving money?" The issue of excise stamps is a state monopoly. But today there are no tools to cope with counterfeit alcohol. Even if some of the alcohol is confiscated, the Ministry of the Interior has no relevant laboratories. Rospotrebnadzor have such laboratories, but they don't have adequate powers or appropriate licenses, which is why the issue cannot be resolved. It is necessary to equip laboratories in order to take measures immediately.

Why do we have such a volume of counterfeit products? Because everyone understands that there are no monitoring mechanisms, or instruments to monitor the situation. If we create a proper system of control, we won't have problems with the monopolization of the market.

The Unified State Automated Information System (EGAIS), which allows the state to control the production and sale of alcoholic products in the country is to be introduced on January 1st. Some people say that it will influence the retail trade and lead to the illegal sale of alcohol. Others say that if the excise stamp passes through the system people will know that they are buying a legitimate bottle. We are frightened that this may affect the price. Recently, representatives of the Association of Retailers have announced that they have closed 14,000 small shops. But if in Europe one shop sells alcoholic beverages to 200,000 people, in our country one shop serves 10,000 customers. A shop that sells alcohol is in every building. If we speak about a healthy lifestyle, it is necessary to close these shops, or forbid them from selling alcohol.

Now the alcoholization of the population continues. We have no special inspection structures in order to struggle against counterfeit trading at night time. I think that we will have a plan of action by next year. In any case, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin promised us we would.

- Today we have set the limit on the cost of alcohol. If earlier it was 185 rubles per half liter, now it is 240 roubles.

- All manufacturers say that it is impossible to produce vodka cheaper than 200 rubles per half liter. This is based on the fact that $100 is the price of producing the excise stamps. Can you imagine how much money is saved when you do not pay excise taxes? If alcohol is sold more cheaply, then there is occasion to think about whether it is worth buying. Consumers save 20-30 rubles, but risk their health. I hope that an active information campaign will lead next year to the reorganization of the system. And we will see the activities which are planned by the government to overcome counterfeiting. The amendments made by the Investigative Committee must be maintained, because impunity leads to irresponsibility that may take people's lives.

In addition, it is about the restriction of sales through the pharmacy system. Or it will be prescription, or products will be limited to one person.

- What is counterfeited in addition to alcohol products?

- Dairy products are in second place. We didn't have enough milk. We don't provide the necessary level of food safety for milk. Therefore, counterfeits are often sold, including cheese products and milk powder. Consumers have no way of understanding what the composition of the products is. Up to 50% of dairy products on the market are counterfeit.

- So, every second piece of cheese is potentially counterfeit, is it?

- Yes. It will continue until we saturate the market with milk. It's a perishable product and if it is not in demand for a higher price as a natural product, it is a loss for producers. The Ministry of Agriculture proposed an initiative to label foods that contain additives, including GMOs and palm oil, so the consumer can determine himself what he buys. So it is necessary that this information be provided on the package.

We considered two bills banning GMOs and palm oil in the null reading at the committee meeting. These bills will be applied, but in the long term, because palm oil is used in confectionery products. We used margarine in home baking and no one died because of it, so palm oil is not a universal evil. But we must know about its quality and ratio, so if there is a ban, the confectionery manufacturer will need to know the timing of its replacement.

- So, the quality of palm oil is also a problem. Unscrupulous manufacturers abuse the cheaper palm oil, in particular unappetizing cheese products.

- The volume of its imports has increased in recent years, therefore the volume of products made from it is also increasing. Ukraine has started cheese supplies to Russia through Belarus. So about four tons are imported into the country every day. Therefore, we are interested in the implementation of the new law on veterinary issues from January 2016, which includes the transparency of passage of goods, their certification and personal responsibility of individuals who issue the certificates in terms of product quality. That is, there will be a system of electronic controls, which will provide the data on every batch of goods, its producer and its shipment. It will no be longer possible to import repacked products, because everything will be monitored.

In this case, the non-governmental inspectors and examination departments will also have access to the certification process. This caused a wave of protest among the state inspectors, who said that such an approach will destroy the system. However, there is a large amount of counterfeit goods and we have not seen active actions of our government inspectors at the subject level to identify those products.

- Will these private sanitary inspectors bear any responsibility?

- Yes, including the withdrawal of licenses. This is quite a serious measure for them. Healthy competition will appear, which will work to streamline the market and identify the products which are not certified. All conscientious manufacturers are interested in this, as conscientious manufacturers suffer because everyone can receive a certificate. All the trade unions, industry associations of dairy and meat products welcome the introduction of these new transparent rules,which will be beneficial only to those businesses that provide quality, transparency and which are responsible for their products. The law passed, it wasn't easy, but today it is necessary to take a lot of regulations. We hope that the Ministry of Agriculture will prepare them by the end of December, and the system will start to operate in the country from January 1.

- Today there is a lot of talk about domestic food aid, and also a lot of myths, particularly related to the card system. What is the domestic food aid?

- It is support for poor and needy groups of the population with food or a certain amount of money to buy food. We must stimulate consumption. Our incomes are falling. The number of poor citizens exceeded 22 million for 9 months. An increase of 2 million was recorded this year. These people cannot be left, they need help. And today it is not just old people. Poverty is merging with the segment of families with small children. When a mother stays at home with the second or third child, the cost of living falls below the level which is set by the state. These families are deprived of guaranteed adequate social support. Child benefits in the region of 200-300 rubles cannot solve the problem.

The category of these poor or near-poor people starts to consume less food or eat carbohydrate foods, such as pasta and bread. Their diet has no fruits, fish, meat. Accordingly, farmers are limited in the market. They are ready to expand production, but if consumption reduces, the markets are shrinking. Domestic food aid is a market mechanism. It is an encouragement for farmers in the form of guaranteed demand for a certain group of products, especially milk. It is a sufficiently powerful incentive for dairy farming.

The idea is that the money will be transferred to plastic cards. It is not a coupon for a chicken, bread or sausage. A person will be provided with an amount of money and he can decide himself what to buy. These are perishable foods, dairy products, meat products and bread except pasta. The estimated amount of such support is 1400 rubles per person, he could spend it during a month on a set of products which will be determined.

- And one cannot withdraw cash from the card, only spend it on certain food products.

- Yes. And money cannot be accumulated, it will be necessary to spend it during a month on a specific group of products. This is now being discussed with the trade networks. Such products will be presented either on separate shelves in retail chains or with a particular label on it.

- So is it the card owner who decides what food he will buy and how much?

- Yes. The main thing here is the money. This is a fundamentally different approach to the social support measures. Now response measures from citizens, which they would take to change the situation in which they find themselves, are being discussed. Maybe it's a possibility of employment. We would like to see it not as a parasitical burden on the state, but as a challenging measure which, on the one hand, does not allow the quality of food to worsen, and, on the other hand, encourages people to look for jobs, retraining, any other actions that will improve their financial situation. 

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