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COVID-19 (2022 Deadline)

Mitigating effects of COVID-19 on small-scale dairy farmhouse producers through education and training initiatives to improve food safety and their access to online distribution platforms

PI: Nada Smigic (, University of Belgrade
U.S. Partner: Jovana Kovacevic, Oregon State University
Project Dates: November 2022 - October 2023

Project Overview:
Small-scale dairy producers (SSDPs) in Serbia have been disproportionately affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the lockdowns and inability to sell their products through typical distribution channels, such as open markets and restaurants, these communities have struggled to make sales and stay in business. During the pandemic, Serbia has witnessed the emergence of new online food distribution channels, increasingly accepted by consumers, mainly due to their convenience. While larger and well established businesses have pivoted to new markets, SSDPs face significant challenges in adapting and meeting the standards required for online sales. The goal of this project is to support Serbian SSDPs’ longevity and resilience by helping them produce foods of high quality and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as enabling them to expand their distribution channels to online platforms. The project will be conducted in two phases, focused on research and training. During the research phase, the PI and her colleagues will first conduct a needs assessment survey to identify challenges faced by SSDPs throughout the production and distribution stages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, they will investigate the quality and safety of dairy products produced by SSDPs through microbiological and physico-chemical analyses to assess their suitability for online sales. The research phase will be followed by the training phase, aimed at improving SSDP’s knowledge and compliance readiness. Region-specific, customized, in-person and e-learning trainings, tailored to SSDPs, will be developed, delivered, and evaluated. The training will include basic quality and food safety preventive controls and key requirements for online product sales.

This project will directly support SSDPs in sustaining their businesses by strengthening their position and competitiveness in the food production sector. Their ability to thrive and succeed is paramount in keeping their rural households and traditional values. This is especially important in the current COVID-19 induced situation, considering the uncertainty regarding the duration and long-term consequences of the pandemic. SSDPs in Serbia are considered a particularly vulnerable subgroup of dairy producers, as they are comprised of mainly females from rural households. This project aims to understand the extent of challenges faced by SSDPs in order to help them respond to and mitigate effects of COVID-19 or similar future crises. In addition, SSDPs are often overlooked in surveillance and research studies. To the best of the research team’s knowledge, there have been no studies or published data on the knowledge and understanding of food safety and quality principles among Serbian SSDPs. By engaging this important subgroup of the dairy sector in research activities as part of the proposed project, the researchers hope to shed the light on this marginalized and underserved audience.

Summary of Recent Activities:

Even before this project officially began on November 1, 2022, team members took part in the 44th International Dairy Experts Symposium organized in Rovinj, Croatia, on October 12-15, 2022. They introduced the project to the dairy stakeholders in a poster presentation and had the chance to interact with participants from relevant institutions around the region, including the University of Zagreb, the University of Osijek, and the University of Applied Science, Karlovac (Croatia); the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia); the University of Sarajevo, University of Tuzla, and University of Mostar (Bosnia and Hercegovina); the State University of Tetova (North Macedonia); the University of Belgrade and University of Novi Sad (Serbia), Croatian Veterinary Institute, the Institute of Public Health Agency for Agriculture and Food, Ministry of Agriculture, and Serbian Public Agricultural Service of Dairy Science, as well as various dairy companies. The official kick-off meeting for this project was held at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Agriculture on November 1, 2022. The attendees included Dr. Nada Smigic (PI), Dr. Jovana Kovacevic (U.S. partner), Dr. Zorana Miloradovic, Dr. Jelena Miocinovic, and Dr. Ilija Djekic. Dr. Kovacevic shared her experience in developing and evaluating curricula for extension program courses, especially for small dairy producers. During the meeting, the realization of the first task of the project related to in-depth interview with online platform representatives (OPRs) was discussed. It was agreed upon to send the draft version of the interview guide to Dr. Kovacevic for the IRB review at her institution. The project timeline and the program of her planned visit to Belgrade was also discussed.

During November-December 2022, Dr. Smigic and her team also laid the groundwork for their new PEER project, including designing the visual identity to incorporated into a range of digital and print materials and setting up social media profiles on Facebook and Instagram that will be utilized to disseminate information about the project and engage stakeholders. During this time, the research team members also met with various key stakeholders, such as representatives of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, USAID mission in Serbia, Ministry of Agriculture, and small-scale dairy producers’ associations. The project was submitted to the Institutional Review Board at Oregon State University in December 2022, which determined that the activities in this study do not involve human subjects research. Based on data in the available literature and preliminary information obtained from stakeholders, the research team developed the general flow and specific questions for an in-depth interview with online platform representatives (OPRs) to help identify current limitations and challenges for online distribution of small-scale dairy products. Three in-depth interviews with OPRs were organized on December 19, 27, and 28, 2022. Among the interviewed OPRs, one is an existing retailer with an online delivery option (female representative) and two are dedicated online-only services (male representatives). At the beginning of January 2023, each in-depth interview was transcribed, and several themes, challenges, and opportunities were identified as a focus for future study as the project moves forward.

In the first half of 2023, based on the data obtained from the qualitative assessment with OPRs, a survey targeting SSDPs will be developed to assess the barriers preventing them from fulfilling requirements to participate in online sales. The survey will be submitted for IRB review at the U.S. partner’s institution and after approval it will be piloted with dairy experts in Serbia and the United States and a sub-set of target audiences before it is distributed more widely, to check for question clarity and appropriateness. Dr. Smigic and her team will work with different stakeholders to distribute the survey to the target audience of SSDPs. In parallel, the safety and quality of dairy products produced by SSDPs will be investigated. For that purpose, the PEER researchers will visit open markets from different cities across Serbia, where they will collect samples of different dairy products and transport them back to the laboratory for microbiological and physico-chemical analysis. At the point of sample collection, data related to packaging, labeling, and expected shelf-life will also be collected. An informational meeting of the project team and stakeholders will also be organized to discuss the results of the research phase and potential contribution of various stakeholders to the research-to-action plan.

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