|Food standards consultant faces loss of EU funding
|Program helps producers meet western regulations
A 15 million euro ($20 million) program financed by the European Union to help Lebanese manufacturers comply with international export regulations may not have its funding renewed when the three-year program ends in December...
A 15 million euro ($20 million) program financed by the European Union to help Lebanese manufacturers comply with international export regulations may not have its funding renewed when the three-year program ends in December, leaving dozens of business owners who have invested time and money in upgrading production methods without the technical assistance needed to complete the certification process.
The program, known as "Qualeb," provides 50 eligible agri-food manufacturers with training and consulting services to achieve ISO certification, the globally recognized food-safety and quality-management system. Qualeb is also working to gain international accreditation for 16 local laboratories to test products' compliance with World Trade Organization (WTO) food safety standards.
The international trend toward standardization means ISO accreditation has become imperative for a company to compete in the global economy, said Qualeb's industry and development adviser, Liam Kinsella. By ensuring that the production methods, infrastructure and machinery used by local manufacturers meet WTO standards, ISO certification will help Lebanese exports gain access to Western markets.
If a business is starting from base one, achieving ISO standardization takes a minimum of one to three years, and often longer, Kinsella said.
"There will not be 50 companies with certification come December. We are operating this activity to be completed then, though we know that a number of them are not ready," he said of what will happen if the Qualeb program does not receive new financing.
"Part of this program will be helping those who cannot achieve ISO by December finish if and when we get additional funding, so we can eventually bring more [small- and medium-sized enterprises] on board."
Qualeb's technical team selected 54 different manufacturers distributed across Lebanon's six governorates for a "detailed gap analysis" based on the sector and export potential of the product, the size of the company's labor force - factories with less then five employees were not considered - and its ability to obtain ISO certification.
Four of the companies dropped out because the process was too difficult or expensive, said Kinsella, and many other Lebanese SMEs have yet to appreciate the importance of standardization in international trade.
"Lebanese food companies can't really depend on the local market, so we need to export to Europe or we won't be able to survive," Kinsella said from Qualeb's offices at the Ministry of Economy and Trade.
"It seems to us at times that a lot of companies up to now just don't bother. They don't realize that if they try to ship to Europe without complying with standards, they are going to have rejection problems. Part of what we are trying to do is develop the infrastructure, the services, whereby a Lebanese manufacturer knows where to go to get the information and how to apply it."
Lebanese exports to the EU and the US have fallen by 50 percent during the past five years, from 30 percent of total annual exports to 15 percent in 2006, according the UN's Economic and Social Council of Western Asia (ESCWA). The drop is attributed to non-compliance with WTO technical requirements.
In 2004, 52 percent of rejected products were blocked for inadequate labeling and packaging requirements, and though the rate has dipped to 40 percent, canned food - one of Lebanon's most successful exports - is commonly blocked from European markets lately, said Qualeb director Ali Berro.
Italy recently rejected shipments of Lebanese hommus and tahini, claiming that the food was packaged in cans that used harmful materials, Berro said. But when Qualeb sent a sample to a European lab for testing, they found out the cans had been manufactured in Germany, according to EU standards.
A lack of internationally accredited lab facilities in Lebanon is partially responsible for the increased rejection rate - as is the growing tendency of many EU member states to use the sanitary and food-safety measures of WTO regulations as a form of protectionism.
Another aspect of Qualeb's mandate is to help 16 local labs gain accreditation so they can test an export's compliance with WTO standards, since Lebanon only has one accredited lab and there are very few testing facilities in the region overall.
"One of the problems our exporters are encountering is when they test products here they get certificates saying products are suitable for consumption, but then they get to the EU and their labs show that product are not fit for consumption. We are not capable of testing for European compliance," said Berro.
"The critical issue is traceability from farm to fork," Kinsella agreed.
Toufic Rizk, head of the University of Saint Joseph's science department, will run the first lab in Lebanon to test the origin of Lebanese beverages such as juice, aromatics, wine, arak and beer before they are exported to Western markets.
Last week French consultants from Qualeb conducted a training session at the lab, and Rizk expects the facility to be fully operational in one month, though it will take about six months to complete the accreditation process.
Lebanese manufacturers would send samples to USJ for the accreditation process, which would cost around $800 and take four to five days. Certified products would bear an official "Made in Lebanon" label.
"We have the nuclear magnetic resonance lab and the sniff lab," said Rizk, gesturing to an assortment of contraptions assembled at the facility in Dikwaneh.
"The bottom line is if you are going to export you have to send it to a lab. Countries need labs to get into the WTO. And there are no labs like this in the Middle East."
Not all Qualeb clients have their eyes on the export market. Though exporting to Western Europe is a distant objective, Hawa Chicken began the certification process to provide quality assurance to Lebanese consumers. Qualeb started training employees at Lebanon's largest poultry company in 2005, and the company launched the ISO certification process in November 2006.
Qualeb sent technicians to the factory and selected Hawa, which already was midway to obtaining a related certification, as a good candidate.
Even for a company that is updating its production methods, the ISO certification process is both a costly and time-consuming investment, said Elie Bou Yazbeck, Hawa's quality-assurance manager. The process requires an overhaul of labor practices, machinery and infrastructure, he said.
"The changes are more than cosmetic," he said from Hawa's corporate headquarters in Safra.
"You have to change the flow of the building, how to go in and out to prevent cross-contamination," he explained. "We had to remove machines containing parts made of wood, adopt new hygiene standards."
Perhaps most importantly, Hawa had to ensure that the management was committed to keeping up with the changing ISO standards, which are updated every six months on average.
For SMEs that are further behind than Hawa, certification costs would run even higher, Yazbeck said, as most Lebanese manufacturers have old machines and infrastructure.
Thanks to Qualeb's help, Hawa's certification target date is the end of this summer. Though Hawa will not be immediately impacted if Qualeb's funding is not renewed, others that have made a similar financial investment may still need technical assistance to reach the ISO standard.
The Daily Star