On 1 May, ten new states will become members of the European Union, and Poland is the largest. If Poland's large agricultural sector is to have access to the whole EU market, its food producers have to upgrade their facilities and practices to conform to the EU's stringent food hygiene standards. Recent food scares mean that consumers are more demanding than ever for food safety assurances.

There are currently 4,267 meat, fish, poultry and dairy processing facilities in Poland, of which only 268 currently meet EU food safety standards. A further 1,500 are expected to have conformed by 1 May, with 1,800 being classified as 'Group C' and allowed only to supply the local market.

Last week, the Polish minister of agriculture, Wojciech Olejniczak, announced that 400 slaughterhouses would have to be shut down before the country joined the EU, as their facilities did not meet the required standards and they cannot be upgraded in time for accession. The European Commission is expected to reveal its verdict on the food safety status of the ten new member states later this month.

Poland's preparation to join the EU has been characterised by long periods of delay followed by last minute dashes to make necessary changes, and the agriculture sector has been no different. To begin with, Polish farmers were unconvinced that it was necessary for them to upgrade their production facilities. The general consensus was that the Polish government would be able to avoid the need for this through negotiations with the EU. However, as this failed to materialise, there has been a last minute rush to remedy the situation. As a result, all but around 500 plants should be in line with EU standards by 1 May.

Hundreds of food production plants have been granted up to three years to make the transition. During this period, their produce will carry a square stamp rather than an oval one, indicating that their sale is authorised only in Poland. Until they are finally approved, they cannot be exported.

In the wake of food scares such as the Asian bird flu and BSE crises, European consumers demand ever-stronger assurances that the produce they buy is safe for consumption.

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