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Kyrgyzstan: Alarm Over Food Aid Scam

Parliamentary deputies investigate humanitarian aid scam that's led to fears over food safety.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Kyrgyz parliamentarians are holding an inquiry into a public health scandal involving the sale of canned meat that had past its sell-by date.

The scandal erupted when the parliamentary health committee raised concerns over possible infection with mad cow disease.

As Kyrgyz scientists do not possess the equipment to analyse the cans for

BSE, a government spokesman said samples would be forwarded to Europe for examination.

In November, police reported the appearance of cans of meat of an unknown provenance, which had passed their expiry date, in local markets. The story soon reached the public through the media.

An initial parliamentary probe has already discovered that the government

resolved to destroy the European donated meat in early October and had entrusted the work to a commission under senior civil servant Alik Orozov.

From October 15, officials began removing the cans to a meat-packing factory in Bishkek for destruction, as it was the only facility with the technical capacity to incinerate such a large quantity of tinned goods.

But far from being destroyed, as the government had ordered, much of the meat was then repackaged by dealers in local tins bearing the logo "Ui eti",

which simply means Tinned Beef.

The affair began after the government's issued an appeal for humanitarian aid with the Brussels-based International Aid Foundation in June 2001. A consignment of meat was then dispatched from Malta to Bishkek in March 2002.

But when it arrived Kyrgyz heath officials slapped an import ban on the meat because it came from Ireland, which they alleged had a history of livestock epidemics.

The head of the veterinary department, Joldosh Osmonaliev, complained that

the goods were poorly documented. "The goods were lacking a veterinary

certificate and the accompanying documents had corrections and erasures on them," he said.

The meat was then stored at a military depot belonging to the emergency

services ministry near Bishkek awaiting further clarification, while various

government departments quarrelled over what to do with it.

By May the meat was still in storage, while the expiry date for consumption had run out. As summer temperatures rose, it became impossible to store the food any longer and officials mused about sending the goods on to Afghanistan, or destroying them - opting for the latter in the end.

But the commission entrusted with destroying the meat appears to have been remiss in executing its task. Orozov was absent from the parliamentary hearings, as he was dismissed from his position shortly before they started.

Other commission members have admitted they received only verbal confirmation of the destruction of the cans from the head of the meat-packing plant.

The local representative of the International Aid Foundation, Alexander Yuldashev, blames officials for delaying distribution of the food aid for so long that the goods passed their expiry date.

Yuldashev compared the fate of the Irish meat sent from Malta to Kyrgyzstan with a similar cargo sent to the Solomon Islands. "Everything was distributed correctly there, and there were no complaints of illness," he said.

The officials involved in distributing the humanitarian aid have all been removed over the course of this year.

The head of the parliamentary health committee Tashpolot Baltabaev said that the Kyrgyz authorities have handled the affair "disgracefully". He warned that highly-placed

officials have long seen humanitarian aid deliveries from rich countries as a source of profit. "They ignore elementary human decency, and gamble with the lives of many of their fellow citizens," he said.

The government is now desperately trying to round up the cans of meat before they get to even more consumers. Criminal charges have been brought against those involved in the theft and sale of humanitarian goods that have passed their expiry date.

Ominously, the newspaper Vecherny Bishkek has reported numerous cases of food poisoning linked to canned meat in recent months. But none of the cases has yet involved mad cow disease and the agriculture minister Alexander Kostyuk has urged people not to panic.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek