VAT? 

▪️ VAT? ▪️ Rats ▪️ A Press in shackles ▪️ Real wasabi, please

Malta Today recently ran a story about restaurants and other businesses not issuing fiscal receipts and pocketing the VAT charged, rather than passing it on to the Inland Revenue.  In some restaurants, particularly in Gozo, the owners take umbrage if you ask for the fiscal receipt.  Electricians, plumbers, and all sorts of other tradesmen openly invite you not to ask for it – the incentive being that the customer does not get to pay it.  Sometimes, they’re good enough to issue a non-fiscal receipt.

It’s no wonder that MEP Cyrus Engerer, who is not exactly an unknown figure, has been forced to exclaim, in a Facebook post: “I am tired of restaurants asking me whether I want a fiscal receipt”.  He added that he had noticed a growing practice for restaurants to suggest patrons pay by revolut rather than by a bank card.  This is, of course, even more facetious robbery involving non-payment of VAT and possible income tax evasion.

The newspaper reported that, according to the Tax & Customs Administration, in the first ten months of 2023 the VAT Department had conducted over 1,200 inspections in restaurants, kiosks, cafeterias, and other food outlets.  Some 250 were found not to be conforming with the law.  A 20% delinquency rate is, in my opinion, a good representation of reality.  The establishments in question were reported to have been fined between €50-€200 each or, in the more serious cases, taken to the Criminal Court where a potential fine ranging between €700 and €3,500 awaits them.  

But consider that, if a normal restaurant might have, say, just 10 clients a day spending €30 each, potentially it could defraud the Inland Revenue Department of €54 in VAT.  Over a week this would amount to €378.  Given the likelihood that in a typical week the probability of a VAT inspection would be minimal, I would say that dishonest traders have an incentive to take the risk.

I have a better idea.  Why not invite customers to send non-VAT receipts to the IRD, who can then inspect the establishment’s VAT book and check whether the non-VAT receipt corresponds to a VAT receipt?  If not, the IRD would fine the establishment concerned or take it to court, while the customer would be given compensation equivalent to 18% of the bill concerned.  Considering that people are keen to put their plastic bottles in the BCRS machines for a mere 10 cents, I think the incentive to report traders who do not issue VAT receipts would be a winner.

Rats

The old adage that you are never more than one-and-a-half metres from a rat is dismissed by experts, but rat invasions are occurring in many countries. Nobody really knows how many rats there are in in any town or city, though some private surveys from exterminators in London, for example, claim they could number up to 20 million. It’s likely there are more of them than the city’s nine million human inhabitants.

Rats can occasionally cause a spat between politicians.  In 2019, Donald Trump famously attacked a black Democratic Congressman who had earned his displeasure by claiming that the Congressman’s district was a “disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess”. Typical of Trump, he overlooked the fact that the Trump Tower Grille, his signature Manhattan property, had been reported for “live mice” and other health violations.

Rats are not just repellent to most people but they spread fear because they are blamed, though some people claim unfairly, for the Black Death Plague which killed million in Europe in the 14th century.  They also cause damage to property and infrastructure, costing New York, for example, $19bn a year!  In Mumbai, most vehicle fires are caused by rats.

Maltese exterminator Arnold Sciberras said on a TV programme recently that he calculated that the rat population in Malta had increased by 13% since 2015. In August, the Times of Malta reported that a rat invasion had wreaked havoc in the countryside across the island, with farmers despairing as they threw away whole fields worth of gnawed crops or, in many instances, just the remaining stalks.  Some found irrigation systems damaged by the pests.

Photo: Sandro Mangion

Some cities and countries have managed to eliminate their rat populations.  The province of Alberta in Canada and the island of South Georgia are the most-quoted examples.  However, it is not an easy process and costs a lot of money, running into the hundreds of millions for large countries.

Failing that, one could emulate Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo who had a message for the rats overrunning the City of Light: “Why can’t we be friends?”  After years spent battling vermin, Hidalgo’s administration announced it intends to take a different approach and attempt to achieve a more peaceful state of coexistence with the rodents.

The mayor decided to form a committee on the question of cohabitation.  The group was tasked with finding the method of dealing with the rats that would be both “effective” and “not unbearable” for Parisians. I am not aware of the deliberations of the committee. 

If the problem in Malta keeps growing, we could do well to set up our own committee too.  The least I can do is suggest a name – RAT, the Rodent Attack Team. 

A Press in shackles

Russia’s attacks on the free press continues to rage on. Vladimir Putin’s government has now opened a criminal case against Masha Gessen – a renowned journalist whose reporting for The New Yorker has been critical of the Kremlin – for allegedly spreading “false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  The New Yorker Editor-In-Chief David Remnick described the charges as baseless and absurd.

Photo: Masha Gessen / Facebook

It’s not just Gessen. The Kremlin also placed Andy Stone, arguably Meta’s most public facing spokesperson, on its wanted list. It’s an escalation of its campaign against the platform. A Russian court has ordered the arrest of Stone in absentia for “aiding terrorism”, according to Mediazona, an independent Russian news outlet co-founded by two members of Russian protest band Pussy Riot.

Historically, the Russian government had relied heavily on Meta’s platforms, Facebook and Instagram, to spread disinformation about current events. But Meta took down two disinformation networks focused on the war in Ukraine over the last year. The two campaigns — dubbed “Cyber Front Z” and “Doppelganger” — had more accounts, groups, and pages tied to them than any other campaigns Meta had disrupted since 2017.

Although Russia’s war on Ukraine has led to an unprecedented clampdown on the media, Amnesty International’s Russia researcher Natalia Prilutskaya says that press freedom was already in a dire position in Russia.  Press freedom has seen a steady decline in the country ever since Vladimir Putin came into power. According to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index — which is updated annually — Russia ranked 148th among 180 countries in 2014. By 2023, the country’s rank dropped to 164th.

Real wasabi, please

Wasabi – a traditional Japanese spice and well-known sushi condiment – is increasingly becoming popular in Europe, including Malta.  Famous chefs like Gordon Ramsay have popularised it through their cooking programmes on TV.  But the lush dark green wasabi leaves aren’t just sought-after for their burst of spiciness followed by a subtle hint of sweetness.  They may also be beneficial in enhancing seniors’ cognitive abilities and memory performance, a recent study found.

Wasabi contains a bioactive compound called 6-methylsulfinyl hexyl isothiocyanate, which is known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The research, conducted by Tohoku University and published in the journal Nutrients, examined whether the compound has a positive effect on cognitive function for healthy adults aged 60 and above.

Post-trial cognitive tests revealed that a group taking 0.8mg of the supplement showed a significant improvement in their episodic and working memories compared with another group which were given a placebo.  Cognitive improvements were particularly evident in terms of their ability to process short conversations, perform simple calculations and match names with faces.

But wait a minute. For a start, are we Europeans eating real wasabi?  According to connoisseurs of the spicy green condiment, most of us have never tasted the real thing and we have all been duped.  The average European has been eating European horseradish, hot mustard, and green dye, believing all the while that it’s the real stuff. 

Wasabi and horseradish have similar chemical make-ups but true wasabi is incredibly rare and difficult to cultivate, only growing on the beds of rocky Japanese mountain streams.  If you want the real stuff, find a restaurant that starts grating the wasabi only after you’ve placed your order, or lets you grate your own wasabi, ideally with a traditional sharkskin tool called oroshigane.

The most interesting thing about wasabi is that if you taste it right after grating, it won’t have much flavour, but after five minutes, all the heat will come out.  Also make sure, if you want the full kick, to eat it within 15-20 minutes, since after that it will lose its flavour again.

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