As women in white lab coats make their way through a laboratory full of glistening new equipment, bags of beans, grains and herbs sit waiting to be tested for bacteria, toxins, humidity and other potential issues.
An upgrade of the food safety laboratory of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Zahle and the Bekaa, completed last year with funding from USAID, has given the food producers of Lebanon’s prime agricultural region access to a world-class testing facility to ensure food safety and improve the quality of their products for sale within and outside the country, officials said. The lab began as a pilot program in 2007 and in 2010 received international ISO 17025 certification. Last year’s upgrade brought in new equipment, including water testing apparatuses, pH testers, chemical and microbiological analysis equipment, and gas chromatography sensors.
Said Gedeon, deputy general manager of the Chamber, said since then, an increasing number of food producers are seeking out the lab’s services. “The tests are not mandatory, but we are seeing that [the business owners] by themselves have started coming,” he said. “They come repeatedly, because they know that if one time their labneh comes out with a problem, the production will be shut down, which costs them much, much more than to test a sample.”
The test results are confidential and are not shared with government authorities – who sometimes visit food facilities to do their own inspections – said Aida Farah, head of the laboratory for the Chamber. Instead, she said, if a test result shows a problem, the lab cooperates with the business in question to address the issue.
According to a statement from USAID, which invested $518,000 in the project, the upgraded lab served 180 small companies, 50 food processors and more than 500 small farmers during its first year of implementation. During that period, local sales have increased by at least $1 million and exports by $3 million, officials said.
“Local Lebanese producers needed product and infrastructure upgrades, including food safety standards, in order to compete in the export market and be compliant in the local market,” USAID said in a written statement. “As a result of this partnership and USAID investment, Lebanese products from Lebanese companies are entering the export market.”
Charbel Hanna, program management and technical specialist in agribusiness and rural development with USAID, said that while the agency provided the initial funding and training for the lab, the Chamber has since picked up the torch.
“We give them, you could say, the first push, and then they should continue, and they are doing that,” he said. “Our goal is development of the communities and economic growth. What we ask from the Chamber is commitment.”
Farah said the next step, hopefully, is to expand the tests available to include pesticide testing as well.
“The next step that we are working on is to increase the partners we have to be able to develop the test,” she said. “But this is a very big investment, over $1 million – we are looking for funds.”
Having a full-service lab in the Bekaa saves local farmers and food producers the time and expense of trekking to Beirut for testing.
Joelle Hajjar, co-founder of Go Baladi, a family-owned business Qubb Elias that makes organic goat-milk products, said that has been a boon. “We have worked for a long time with the Chamber’s lab, and we send them everything from the milk to the final products, and they have everything. Now they have new equipment that wasn’t present before,” she said. “Before we had to go to Fanar and to Beirut, but now … we can go 15 minutes to Zahle and test everything.”
Hajjar’s business has also been the recipient of USAID funding for marketing and equipment. Apart from the five employees working in the plant, Hajjar said the aid and the resulting increase in local and export business has helped the shepherds who supply the milk – most of them in remote areas in the mountains – to improve their product and get it to markets they could not otherwise access.
“As they say, one hand doesn’t clap, so we and USAID and the farmers are working together to make products of the best quality,” she said.