Malta: A Long Way To Go
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They were regarded with suspicion by the customs officers. 'We felt as if we were importing drugs.' That is how Mathew di Giorgio (picture) describes the first attempts twenty two years ago to source health food products abroad and to import them. 'It took us six months to find organic rice and to import it.' Today he is the owner and managing director of Good Earth, the only whole food and health food wholesaler on the island of Malta. Now aged 47, Mathew di Giorgio began by opening the first whole food shop not far from the capital Valetta. With 25 m² of floor space, he sold a whole food dry goods range, as well as vitamins and other food supplements. In 1989, he moved into a larger shop with about 50 m² on two levels. The sublet upper storey is devoted to massage, homeopathy and cosmetic products.
Picture: Mathew di Giorgio
Malta has 385 000 inhabitants and is the smallest country and the most southerly in the EU. With Malta lying approximately 100 km south of Sicily, Africa is only 290 km away. There are five whole food shops and only seven organic farmers on the two associated islands, Malta and Gozo that became independent of Britain in 1964. There is a long way to go before the marketing of organic produce is firmly established: only 5 % of the products sold in the shops come from organic agriculture. Fresh organic foods like fruit, vegetables, milk and dairy products are still not even on sale in Malta's shops. Farmers have to sell their produce direct (and sometimes not identified as organic) at conventional prices. The five whole food shops are oriented towards vegetarian food, although Malta's single wholesaler would like to market cheese in the near future. The annual turnover of the five health food stores in Malta is estimated to be 400 000 Maltese pounds (1 million Euros). These shops are all members of the Malta Association of Health Food Shops.
In the shop (picture) belonging to Margaret Grech, with 50 m² floor space the biggest specialist whole food shop on the island, there are about 1000 items on sale, ranging from frozen food to essential oils and books on nutrition. In a side room naturopathic treatments and massage are available. In the wide entrance hall, there is a well stocked range of vitamins and food supplements (picture below). Margaret Grech's shop, that is located in the town of Mosta, also sells fruit juices, biscuits, different types of muesli, marmalade and cereals. 'Tourists buy lots of bars and other snacks,' she explains (picture), but most turnover has been generated by local people and foreign residents living permanently on the island. She has found that more and more frequently customers have been enquiring about organic products, but she regretted to say that organic food has so far not constituted a major part of what she has on sale. You look in vain for fresh organic items like bread, fruit, vegetables and milk products. A short time ago, supplies from an organic project were once again terminated because turnover was too small.
Joining the EU Facilitates Organic Trade
'Until recently we had to pay the equivalent of 1.10 Euros in import duty for every kilo of pasta imported from neighbouring Italy,' says Giorgio in irritation. However, these import duties have been gradually reduced in the process of joining the EU. At the moment the duty is still 90 cents. Whilst this duty is not imposed on unprocessed basic foods like rice and cereals, the import of processed food products is 'penalised'. 'We have to pay as much as 2.2 Euros to the State for bakery items,' Giorgio adds. Different levels of import duty are levied according to the product, such as marmalade, fruit juice or flour. Mathew di Giorgio welcomes having joined the EU in as far as it makes import and export considerably easier. But he is expecting more than just material benefits because, in his own words, as he looks forward to the next few years: 'In my opinion it will also be conducive to a positive exchange of ideas and to the stimulation of the health food sector.' However, he is not in a position to estimate whether there will be increased competition in his region of the Maltese islands. 'If someone else set up here, that would mean we had not done our homework properly' is his realistic comment.
Foreign Representatives Also Supply Direct
Whilst the wholesaler Good Earth sells about 800 articles, 200 of which are under its own label, the shopkeeper Margaret Grech also gets supplies direct from about 30 foreign suppliers. These suppliers have a representative on Malta who visits or telephones the shops on a regular basis. Some time later, the goods are delivered by private transport firms that are mainly British, Italian and Belgian. Goods are also imported from Germany and Austria. If goods are to be supplied to Malta, it is essential that they are labelled in English or Italian.
Good Earth has 15 employees at the wholesalers in Naxxar and another 4 in 2 shops in Balluta and Birkikara near the capital Valetta. The Good Earth shop in Birkikara opened in January 2005 on a retail space of around 40 sq. meters. 11 people are working in the flourishing catering service of Good Earth
In addition to the six health food stores and four other specialised shops in Malta, the wholesaler supplies 200 conventional food retailers with between 20 and 200 articles. It also sells goods under its own Good Earth Label, including nuts, dried fruit, dried tomatoes, pulses and rice. Wholesaler Mathew di Giorgio would like to give greater prominence to the organic sector in his future import policy. To do this, however, he points out that he would have to make contact with organic suppliers abroad. Consumers in Malta will soon be able to get information on nutrition from a new website: www.goodearth.com.mt