Public Health Concerns in Booming Bottled Water Sector

Over the past few years the number of companies involved in the bottled water industry has started to balloon. Although this initial growth period coincided with some well documented procedures for checking standards, such processes are not still being conducted intensely enough. This includes the prevalence of uncertified brands on the market, bringing with it concerns over public health, Dawit Endeshaw Fortune Staff Writer reports.

With the changing lifestyle of Ethiopia’s urban population, the use of treated and bottled water has been increasing exponentially. The number of factories involved in the mineral water is also enormous. It was in the early 1990’s that Ethiopia first got its own bottled water, when the local Apex Bottling Company introduced the iconic “Highland Spring Water”.

Any brand of bottled water has in fact continued to be known as simply ‘highland’ until very recently.

Now, after almost a decade of growth, it is not so uncommon to see multiple alternatives in Addis Abeba. Other cities too have their own brands, bottled from nearby sources.

Though it is difficult to clearly identify the most reliable data, different agencies suggest that anything from 26 to 60 brands have now entered the market. Up until 2013, the number had reached 53, and if the same progression continues it will continue to grow by 13pc annually, reaching around 90 by 2020. The number of consumers too has escalated over the years, to a point where some have stopped drinking tap water altogether.

“Me and other adults in the family can drink tap water, but not my children,” said a mother of twin boys, who just turned four last month. “I stopped relying on the quality of tap water after I saw brownish water flowing after days without supply.”

She never said what gave her the guarantee over the quality of plastic bottled waters. She simply trusts that they must have passed through rigorous standards checks and periodic assessments.

The quality assurance and certification processes have not, however, proved so smooth or coordinated.

There is no point where they can get information on the – pros and cons of the product. Most consumers questioned do not even look closely at the marks and digits used to indicate quality and certification.

This brings about a hovering risk with regard to public safety, while also instilling a lack of assurance and competitive points among those in the sector. Despite this, an ever increasing number of companies are being registered in the sector.

Globally, the bottled water sector is reported to be worth 157.3 billion dollars, according to Transparency Market Research. Reports compiled by the Ethiopian Central Statistics Agency indicated that 60 companies have a registered growth in the value of the product of 5.7 million Br a year.

When one talks about these bottled waters, the risk to public health is always a source of controversy. Several scientific studies elaborated on the pros and cons of both the chemical composition and packaging.

In Ethiopia, bottled water is among the 57 mandatory standards with its own country-specific indicators of standardisation.

The law was asserted as early as 2014, when the Ministry of Trade (MoT) gave an ultimatum to the bottlers to get the waters certified by the Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise (ECAE). Back then, there were only six companies that were said to fulfil the quality standards. Now this figure has climbed to 50.

At the Ethiopian Standards Agency, there are at least four standards directly associated with water bottling – packaging and labelling, specification of bottled drinking water and standards on plastic materials for food contact use.

There is a lack of integration among this dedicated offices, said Woinshet Hailemariam, Quality, Food Safety & Production director at Moha – introduction to Moha.

The Ministry of Trade gave licences after ensuring that the bottlers obtain a quality performance certificate from the Food Medicine & Healthcare Administration & Control Authority (FMHACA).

Just a few weeks ago, the Ethiopian Standards Agency, which is mandated to set the standards, pointed its finger at the FMHACA, stating that it had failed to stop uncertified bottled water from entering the market. The FMHACA is a regulatory body that controls and looks into the safety of these products and, in the case of any defects, enforces corrective measures.

Based on its assessment, the Agency reported that there still uncertified bottled waters on the market.

Bella Water, located in Sebeta town, is now under investigation by the ECAE for selling its bottled water without a quality assurance certificate from the Enterprise, according to a quality expert at the ECAE.

The ideal scenario, in this context, is that any of business entity interested in entering the bottled water sector must have a certificate from the FMHACA. After this, they can get the licence from the MoT. The Ministry thereafter has to impose the mandatory standards checks, before permitting the bottler to enter the market.

The Authority checks that the business entity has an adequate and appropriate storage room, washable walls and floors in the storage room, adequate lighting and ventilation, availability of technical personnel, as well as the nature of the product. These are the major preconditions required to earn a certificate of competence.

In this respect, the storage room must be constructed from stone, brick or similar heat inhibiting materials, and be constructed in such a way that it does not compromise the safety and quality of products

The FMHACA is about the production line – fitness and safe storage – while the conformity assessment is about the composition of the water and its acceptable standards. They check the odour, taste and colour, the results of which are unobjectionable, according to the standard.

Labelling is another check that is also a mandatory. The label has to show composition, as well as location of manufacturing and the sources used.

Though endowed with the ultimate authority of giving a verdict on the safety of a product, FMHACA never had the full capacity to conduct the inspection on its own.

Samples are sent to Europe, which is particularly important for pesticide remnants checks.

“We have not been able to do pesticide tests for a while now, and samples are let free on the market without the proper certification,” said an expert, on grounds of anonymity.

He only has his strong hope to rely on, since pesticide remnants have not been a major issue in quality check processes.

The shortage on Forex has hit the mandatory quality assurance of bottled waters too.

“In order to be sure and decide, they must have assessed the way the bottlers treat the waters,” said Tsigreda Assefa, a researcher on water and environment at the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI). “Such substance if they mix with the water will cause a long term health problem on end users.”

She too admitted the gap in certifying packaging and plastic inputs used for the plastic bottles.

Her institution, endowed with a mandate of serving as a referral medical laboratory, has done a series of research pieces on the quality of water content, but never managed to do a single study on the plastic bottles.

“Finance is a huge limitation, we lack the technology required,” Tsigereda said. “There are a list of priorities the Institute has to grapple with.”

She never underestimates, however, the great impact and danger the pack might cause to the composition.

“Nobody has raised any questions, nor set any standards on what kind of plastic materials we use”, Tesfaye Temesgen, general manager of Agmas, told Fortune.

This is a company that came into the business one year back.

Agmas Manufacturing Plc, the bottler of Agmas Water, imports the polyresin raw material from China and processes the bottles at its plant in Ayer Tena, west of Addis. Agmas uses a PET category bottle, which is not reusable.

“We just bought the raw material from the international market by looking into prices,” said Tesfaye.

The company, which started production last year, distributes its water in 0.6lt and 1.2lt bottles to 20 major towns outside the capital.

Once a bottler has been being declared fit, that should not be the last of it. The Ministry’s standards requirement demands that each bottler should do a thorough quality check quarterly out of its own pocket.

“Yes, we are set to do the standards check,” the expert at the Standards Agency said. “Most of the time, it is the companies, which bear the burden of the cost, that are reluctant.”

One round of standards checks costs 35,000 Br to 40,000 Br for each visit.

The ozone concentration levels injected into the bottles depends on the quality of ozone generating machines, according to Ashenafi Ambaw, Quality Control & Food Safety supervisor at Moha.

“The ones from China and Europe are vastly different in standard,” he explains.

Moha has its own mineral water bottling plant in Addis Abeba’s Summit area. The company entered the market with its brand name, “Kool Water” back in 2004. At the moment, the company is exclusively supplying the Sheraton Addis Hotel and Ethiopian Airlines. It has the capacity of producing up to 14,000lt a day.

The company received the last certificate to be processed by the ECAE, in 2015. However, its plastic bottled water does not have the logo of the Standards Agency on it.

“This is mainly because of the insufficient stock of plastic labels, where the logo is printed on them,” said Ashenafi.

Regarding the follow-up surveillance, conducted three-month intervals, Moha seems to be in trouble, with the ECAE deciding to snatch away its original quality certificate.

Another player in the market, Dasani – a product of East African Bottlers – has been temporarily banned from market too.

“During the third surveillance, we were told by Moha that they are not producing the water and we could not take and test the samples,” an expert from the ECAE told Fortune. “According to our mandate, if they say they have stopped producing the water then they have to give the certificates back to us,” the expert added.

Article of the Directive of the Ethiopian National Standards, states that if the user (bottler) fails to provide the necessary information and samples to an authorised inspector, it will have its licence revoked.

In this respect, the Enterprise has snatched the certificate from Dasani Water. The water came into the Ethiopian market as a brand of Coca-Cola in 2014. It is a globally known brand, with a presence in 34 countries. The company was reported to have invested close to 30 million dollars to bring the product to Ethiopia’s market.

Aside from the packaging, labelling and content of the water being bottled, dedicated public institutions seem to lack both the preparedness and institutional framework required to assess the conformity of the plastic bottles being used to pack the water.

The usual trend is that almost all the bottlers use what is called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) category one, which cannot be reused.

Even if there are standards for such food grade materials, none of the above institutions have any kind of quality check to confirm that they conform with these standards. The standards have listed a number of chemicals used to compose these PETs, with their acceptable levels or a minimum amount additive to be used.

“We don’t do testing on this material,” said Tekea Berhane, corporate communications & service head at the ECAE.

Quality audits were supposed to have been conducted by the FMHACA on the producer of the plastic bottles or semi-processed bottles, said Ashenafi. His company, Moha, use semi-processed bottles from the local Pepsi International accredited company, Roha Pack, as well as plastic cups sourced from Greece.

The basic and mandatory quality standards of bottled water are still not fully accepted by industry players, and also not exhaustively enforced by the implementers. Indeed, some of them are only at the early stage of being understood by both parties. The Ethiopian Standard Agency is now conducting a study to identify which of the standards are being implemented and which are not.

Not only that, the EPHI has conducted no study on this due to the fact that the required technology to do the testing is not available.

“No one knows if these plastics meet the standards or not,” said Tsegerda.

The PET 1 category is commonly used to package cosmetics, water, juice, soft drink and oil. The plastic has to be transparent and non-reusable. Category two, on the other hand, commonly known as high-density polyethylene, are used for things such as cosmetics and detergents. The categories go up to seven, with softness and hardness levels also associated.

Consumer protection has not received any complaints so far; though it has never given any awareness on issues to its constituency – the consumers.

It is simply compiling the data from the ECAE, and never cross-checking with other certifying agencies, including the FMHACA.




By Dawit Endeshaw
Fortune Staff Writer

Published on Jul 05,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 844]



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