“The Directorate for national reference laboratories in Batajnica represents an umbrella lab in the process of food safety testing. We analyse the levels of residual pesticides, which is really important, because we now know that residual pesticides are perhaps even the biggest factor of risk to people’s health,” says Dr Nenad Dolovac, head of the Directorate for national reference laboratories in Batajnica.

The lab in Batajnica has several departments: it analyses the quality of milk, runs food and animal feed safety tests; the phytosanitary lab analyses the health of plants, such as the presence of residuals pesticides in plant-based food and animal feed; finally, the Directorate houses a Plant gene bank, too.

Direkcija za nacionalne referentne laboratorije u Batajnici jeste krovna laboratorija u procesu ispitivanja bezbednosti hrane. Any analysis carried out at this lab is final, leaving no room for doubt and additional interpretations.

In the words of director Dolovac, the Directorate is accredited to run the highest level of food safety tests: “Presence of heavy metals, microtoxins, or food contaminants, all the while relying on EU and domestic regulations.”

National regulations on food safety are fully aligned with EU regulations, he adds.

“We harmonise our practices with the latest EU standards once a year; it’s a living process. We align our standards with any findings reported by EFSA (European Food Safety Agency), and other EU agencies, sometimes even twice a year.”

“It is all part of our responsibility, and our purpose. Any product that receives certification for the EU is certified in Serbia, too, no doubt. Because most of our products are exported to the EU, and it is our duty to keep up with the EU market. Without harmonisation, both our economy and exporters would be in trouble, while our citizens would be put at risk. All benchmarks or analysis methods, and anything else lab- and food safety-related is absolutely in line with EU standards.”

Speaking about cooperation between this institution and the EU, the director recalls that the construction and equipping of the lab in Batajnica was supported by the European Union with 7.5 million euros and another three million euros from Serbia.

“We received numerous donations in the past decade, with some 10 million euros of investment in total, part of which was used to adapt our premises and labs, while the other part was used to purchase equipment. Thanks to that equipment we were able to receive accreditation and thanks to that equipment, our lab is now fully operational,” says Dolovac, adding that the Republic of Serbia made considerable investments, too.

Contribution during the pandemic

The EU-donated equipment includes an automated system for sample handling, thanks to which the testing process is greatly facilitated and made safer, and precisely that equipment was used for testing of samples for COVID-19.

“I would like to express gratitude, both personal and on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Serbian Government: the equipment we received from the EU, the one used for food safety testing, was the same equipment we used at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic test samples. In less than two years, we tested nearly 450,000 PCR samples. Now, the Directorate is getting back to its usual work, but we always stand ready to lend our support to the health system of the Republic of Serbia.”

Since 2000, the European Union has donated 230 million euros for agriculture and food safety in Serbia. Raising competitiveness, food safety and public health standards, respect for animal welfare, and environmental standards are the main areas of EU assistance to this sector. IPARD (Instrument for pre-accession assistance for rural development) is the leading programme in this area, within which Serbia has been allocated with 175 million euros for the period 2014-2020, with additional 55 million euros of national co-funding, and it is intended for agricultural producers.