Business Today Egypt
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Photo Credit: Ryan Luikens
The food industry has been spoiled by loose food safety regulations and disorganized enforcement, but producers will soon have to clean up their acts to comply with international standards.
By: Ethar El-Katatney and Lindsey Parietti
The fortitude of the Egyptian stomach is a source of both pride and humor. Years of digesting treats such as feseekh (salted, aged fish) and the fragrant gibna baeda qadeema (old white cheese) — delicacies that would send those of weaker constitutions running for the bathroom — have produced digestive systems more resilient to local bacteria.
But Egyptians’ faith in their stomachs is also one of the many obstacles facing the country as it attempts to clean up a food industry not renowned for hygienic practice. As several ministries collaborate to create a new food safety agency that will be responsible for updating food safety laws — some governing the industry are relics of the 1930s and 40s — food producers, retailers and restaurants will be forced to comply with more stringent international standards following a Ministry of Trade and Industry decree last year.
The shift could be difficult for some business owners who believe they are already taking appropriate food safety measures.
Samy Ahmed, 27, runs a Kebda cart in downtown Cairo that he inherited from his father. “Everyone loves the sandwiches. I wash my hands in the morning, and my ingredients are very fresh. Egyptians have very good seha [health]— no one gets sick from food!”
Standing in his kiosk in Mohandiseen surrounded by dusty boxes, Mohamad Sayed, 33, shares his idea of proper food safety: “Of course I don’t sellanything here that is bad. I’m an honest man — whenever anything is past its expiration date, I sell it for half price.”
Consumers have the choice to avoid the particularly dirty corner mart or offending fuul cart, but the bigger problem lurks in the behind-the-scenes practices of large food producers and distributors.
In April 2008, following a flurry of unfavorable media coverage, the Ministry of Health and Population launched mass food safety inspections in 13 governorates. At one dairy company the ministry discovered rat poison stored next to cheese-producing machines, according to local daily Al-Akhbar, which was present for some of the inspections. A soda company in Beni Sueif was using water from an unlicensed, contaminated well to make its products. Soda bottles were found with insects and metal objects inside them. In a tobacco company in Giza, the storage area was infested with insects and spiders and exposed electricity cables lined the walls. In the same company’s Alexandria branch the situation was worse: Leftover materials from the production process were used to create new products.
Following 456 inspections and a host of appalling health violations, the Health Ministry closed 96 factories, hotels, restaurants and storage areas and filed police reports against many of the offenders. The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) also issued a decree (Decree no. 757 of 2008) requiring all food producers to comply with local standards by the end of 2009, and to comply with international Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) or International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 22000 guidelines — both international quality standards (see box on page 79) — by the end of 2010.
Despite the fact that these international standards have become routine procedure for food producers, suppliers and restaurants around the globe, many local businesses don’t see why they are necessary, says Dr. Ahmed Karam Ammar, a trainer for agricultural and food management consultants GMB-Precon.
This mentality is one that will have to change if local companies are to truly understand food safety, and not just follow regulations to avoid fines or other penalties, Ammar believes.
GMB-Precon is one of several dozen companies approved by the MTI to help food producers comply with HACCP or ISO standards. The MTI has set up a fund administered by the Industrial Modernization Center, an agency that supports industrial development, and funded by the European Commission to help businesses pay the consultant fees.
The local standards that producers must comply with by the end of this year are more related to the maximum amount of heavy metals and other composition parameters rather than standards that regulate the food production process itself, says Ammar.
“From my perspective these kind of Egyptian standards, they are respected, but the problem is more with the general hygiene,” says Ammar, who thinks meeting international hygiene standards will be the bottleneck for improving food safety practices.
What remains unclear, even to those reforming the industry and drafting a new food safety law, is how the MTI decree will be enforced and by whom.
Although he was uncertain, Hesham Ragab, MTI legal advisor, says the ministry will likely start by enforcing whatever regulations win legislative approval on large and medium-sized businesses.
“Usually Minister [Rachid Mohamed] Rachid’s approach in this area as far as those institutions that are doing their best and putting the right resources [forth] to meet these standards, is if there is a problem […] or any justification that there be a kind of acceptable delay, these deadlines could be extended. If the delay is because there is no cooperation from those industries and they are just ignoring the minister’s decree, at this point there could be penalties starting from [a reprimand] or notification up to shutting down the facility.”
Last year the MTI also ordered the creation of an independent food safety agency charged with writing a unified food safety law and taking over all food safety activities from the multitude of ministries and divisions that currently oversee this fractured system. But halfway through 2009, the agency has yet to be formed. According to Dr. Hussein Mansour, who was appointed head of the agency, a steering committee made up of members from various ministries and other stakeholders is working to get final approval for the agency’s creation through the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council and wants to begin drafting the new comprehensive food safety law, which will supercede existing laws, as quickly as possible.
According to the General Administration for Food Inspection (GAFI), an agency under the Health Ministry, its 5,246 food inspectors performed 1.7 million inspections in the first half of last year. They found that of the nearly 300,000 food samples taken, about 8,000, or 2.9%, did not meet the agency’s standards. The substandard samples resulted in the disposal of more than 1 million tons of food and 47,000 court cases charging companies with fraud and violation of consumer protection laws.
Although Ammar says the international guidelines, especially ISO, emphasize a “farm to fork” approach to food safety that does not focus on any one part of the food supply chain, the biggest area of concern in Egypt is the production phase.
“I think the food processing itself is very dangerous because you have a lot, a lot of activity between human and between the product,” he says, emphasizing that many products may then go on to other producers or to restaurants for further cooking, where contamination could spread.
Corruption in the licensing and inspection system also accounts for a small part of the problem, as businesses can buy their licenses or be tipped off to inspections, says Ammar.
GAFI Director Dr. Mohamed Sayed, however, believes the biggest problem lies with unlicensed companies that operate outside of the government’s purview.
“Licensed companies’ problems are [usually] due to performance,” he says. “If they make mistakes I can follow them and judge them and even shut them down. But if you work under the table, or are a seller in the street who moves around, of course you’re not interested in food safety.”
Considering Egyptian consumers spend 50%–55% of their income on food and beverages, says Sayed, it’s not that they don’t care, but that they simply don’t know.
Sayed also points out that local companies, which far outnumber hypermarkets and brand chains, typically don’t export their products and therefore don’t focus as much on food safety as those that do.
“You’ll find in some supermarkets that some people have meat in the Pepsi freezer,” says Tarek Saleh, quality director of the family owned Ragab & Sons discount store chain. “I go out to do surveys on my competitors and I’ve seen this: I’ve seen fish cleaned with Persil! […] Knives washed with Rapso and vinegar, which affects your kidney and liver! And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
Lack of public awareness, Saleh believes, is the primary reason behind any retailer’s lack of interest in food safety.
“Will you know if cheese is natural or powdered milk, or off or clean?” asks Saleh. “If your fish is grown in a farm or comes from the sea? If the workers are wearing normal or latex gloves?”
Fines are not enough motivation to make companies clean up their acts, believes Saleh.
“If I have sales of several million per day, a fine of LE 1,000 is nothing,” he says, “but if I know the public will find out I give them food unfit for consumption, the owners won’t be able to sleep at night.”
Ammar says fundamental change has to come from the businesses’ internal culture and workers should be trained not just in the basics of food safety, but in the reasons behind them.
“Food processing companies, restaurants and supermarkets should really cooperate and do their best to comply […] but not only to obtain the certificates,” says Ammar. “Because there is a big difference between a company that wants a certificate to hang like this on the wall and a company that wants to really work according to the certificates.”
The Big Fish
The international restaurant, retail and hotel chains — along with the local branches of multinational food producers — that permeate Egypt are pulling food safety standards up, says Ammar, who recently assisted the local branch of Aquafina, a division of PepsiCo International, in obtaining its HACCP certification.
“Food safety in hotels and restaurants has really improved,” says Mirjam van Ijssel, executive director of the Egyptian Chef Association (ECA). The ECA has been providing HACCP training for most of Egypt’s five-star hotels since 1999, with the association’s membership coming largely from those hotels. In recent years however, Ijssel has seen more local restaurants such as Abu Shakra utilizing the ECA’s trainings.
Ijssel believes that supermarkets are the entities that need close monitoring. She echoes Sayed in saying food manufacturing companies that export abide by rigid standards, whereas supermarkets don’t pay as much attention “since the public just says ‘maa’lesh’ and doesn’t complain,” she says.
But some supermarkets say they had self-imposed food safety standards in place even before the government began its efforts to clean up the industry. Ragab & Sons implemented a LE 450,000-per-year food safety department three years ago when it began to expand.
Each of the chain’s 16 branch has its own quality assurance inspectors and any fresh product goes through a number of checks before it reaches the customer. As bloody cow carcasses are being loaded into taxi trunks elsewhere in the city, Saleh explains how one makes it on to Ragab & Sons’ counters.
Before a carcass goes into the receiving area, the store checks the temperature of the delivery vehicle and meat containers, among other things. In the receiving area, the cow is inspected visually for injection marks and for the Ministry of Agriculture stamp that indicates it was slaughtered according to legal standards. Internally, its liver is checked and its pH is tested to detect bacteria.
In the manufacturing stage, the cow is split into parts, again with standards applied, such as the use of knives with plastic handles to prevent bacteria accumulation. Employees who move the carcass to the freezer must wear plastic coats and the freezer has to meet certain criteria. If the meat is to be sold right away, it is placed on clean stainless steel plates and chemical agents are used to clean the viewing refrigerator.
Metro, one of the largest supermarket chains in Egypt with 36 branches, has an almost identical system to Ragab & Sons that costs the chain LE 500,000 annually, proving that discount stores can be just as diligent as major chains if they make food safety part of their business philosophy.
Metro performs monthly audits as well as a daily internal inspection of everything down to the length of staff members’ fingernails and beards.
Quality Assurance Manager Iman Refai says that clients are beginning to demand a higher level of food safety and control: “Our clients are A-class consumers, and they know very well how important quality is.”
As local companies begin competing with larger chains or exporting their goods, they are forced to comply with international standards. But business growth also leaves a greater potential for contamination.
“Actually it also has to do a lot with the culture,” Ammar says of why Egyptian companies lag behind their Western counterparts in terms of best practices.
“They don’t pay enough attention to food safety because we just do things as we saw our mothers doing. The issue is that if you are moving from a microscale to the macroscale, you have to be very very careful because what you can do in your own kitchen, you can never ever do if you are cooking for 1,000 people or whatever the size of production. In this case we are talking about multiplication of any mistake.”
Bad Trade Rap
The food industry is the fifth largest sector in terms of exports and, combined with fourth-ranked agriculture, accounted for LE 14.9 billion of the country’s LE 73.9 billion worth of exports in 2007. Food exports grew more than 34% between 2006 and 2007, and the Food Export Council — an organization established by the MTI to act as a think tank and liaison between producers and the ministry — has projected that processed food exports could reach LE 121 billion annually by 2013.
Last year the US turned down several shipments of okra, strawberries, and olives — most because of contamination, and some because of substandard packaging and labeling. The European Union also turned down shipments of peanut butter and sunflower seeds because they were contaminated with Aflatoxin, a toxin produced by certain fungi that can damage the liver.
And it isn’t just foreign countries that are taking issue with local food: A study conducted in September 2008 by the National Institute for Medical Surveillance and Research, found that all 30 honey samples samples tested from producers in 20 governorates were infected with Cloramfenicol, which can cause blood and bone marrow diseases.
Another study by the Veterinary College in Cairo on meat safety revealed that, compared to accepted worldwide meat contamination standards of 100–100,000 microbes per square centimeter, Egypt’s meat averages 216 microbes per square centimeter immediately after being slaughtered, which because of contaminated equipment, surfaces and water can grow up to 66 million microbes per square centimeter by the time it is sold in a butcher’s store, Mansour said at a conference last year, reported by local daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
MTI’s Ragab says that one of the goals of the new legislation is to improve exports and prevent them from being rejected.
“One of the goals mentioned in the draft law is to develop and monitor the level and standards of producing food products here in Egypt and exporting food products. I think this is one of the landmark important points […] the new established body hopefully will assume responsibility in this sector,” he says.
Although there is still a lot of work to be done and little time before producers, restaurants and retailers must meet the new regulations, Ammar says that even in a worst-case scenario that would involve major outlays on improved infrastructure, his and other consulting firms could help bring a business up to speed in about a year.
“I think it’s not really a big challenge if everybody is working sensibly to implement this system. The government cannot really give too much time for implementation of these kind of certificates because you are talking about the health of the citizens,” says Ammar.
On the other hand, says Mansour, now that the government has decided to act, it is important to take the time to create a system that really works.
Draft legislation establishing the food safety agency, agree Mansour and Ragab, is unlikely to pass through Parliament before the next session, which begins in October.
“Usually, changing tradition is not easy, changing the system is not easy, changing the people’s beliefs is not easy, there are many misunderstandings about many things,” Mansour says, when asked why it has taken so long to try to create a modern food safety system, despite the fact that the government has recognized the problem and that international food safety standards are widely practiced elsewhere.
“We’re talking science and logic, […] we have many things which go like ‘inshallah’ and things like that are not well defined. We think in details, because details are very much important,” says Mansour.
The much-needed update to food safety laws may be awhile in the making, and it may not be perfect, but it will at least streamline and clarify the process, says Mansour.
“It will make things safer,” he says. “Not necessarily 100%, but it is going to be safer.” bt
HACCP and ISO
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is based on technology and procedures developed in the 1970s to prevent food-borne illnesses in astronaut food. The system involves analyzing hazards, identifying points at which they occur and establishing preventative methods and corrective plans that can be put in place when things do go wrong.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 22000 is similar to HACCP with additional guidelines including communicating food safety issues to consumers and suppliers and seeking registration or certification of a company’s food safety system by an external organization. The organization that created these regulations sets standards for business, government and society through committees of international experts.
Food safety in Egypt does not operate under one umbrella organization. And despite the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s mandate to create a food safety agency that will take over all oversight and enforcement, it will likely be a lengthy transition, says Dr. Hussein Mansour, who will head the future agency.
There are around 17 agencies under six ministries currently carrying out some part of the food safety regulatory process, says Hesham Ragab, legal advisor to the minister of Trade and Industry. For the most part, these agencies work independently and their roles may often conflict. For many food companies, this multi-sectoral approach is as confusing as it is costly.
The Ministry of Health and Population carries out the bulk of the work through the General Administration for Food Inspection (GAFI), which has 29 branches across the country. GAFI operates labs that analyze both natural and processed food imports as well as locally produced food samples. The agency also carries out awareness campaigns, trains food inspectors and punishes food producers who don’t abide by the laws by filing police reports, shutting them down or imposing fines, depending on the severity of the violation, the size of the business and whether it is a repeat offender.
The Ministry of Agriculture is in charge of anything related to veterinary and agricultural products, with a central laboratory to analyze pesticides and test for heavy metal residues in food.
The MTI sets standards through the Egyptian Organization for Standardization and Quality (EOS), and is responsible for food safety legislation. The EOS has four essential requirements relating to health, safety, environmental consistency and misleading trade that must be fulfilled before the issuance of any certification.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity contributes to the process with inspectors and consumer protection agencies, and the ministries of Environmental Affairs and Tourism also play a role.