The collaboration that opened up EU for National Foods

By Kazim Alam, The Express Tribune

KARACHI: To many people the idea that academia-industry collaboration in Pakistan may lead to measureable business improvements may seem far-fetched.

To National Foods, however, joining hands with the Karachi-based Textile Research and Innovation Centre (TRIC) – research wing of Textile Institute of Pakistan – to minimise contamination in processed chilli products has brought substantial results. It now meets stringent European Union (EU) quality standards for the export of chilli to the region, thanks to the use of geo-textiles during the chilli drying process.

Chilli often gets contaminated with aflatoxin – a toxin produced by mold that can damage the liver and may lead to liver cancer – during harvest, post-harvest, drying and storage stages.

Pakistan’s export to Europe suffered in 2003 when the EU introduced the upper limit of five parts per billion (PPB) of aflatoxin in chilli products.

Talking to The Express Tribune, National Foods senior deputy manager research and quality control lab Muneer Hussain said the aflatoxin level in Pakistan’s chilli varied from 2 to 100 PPB.

High levels of aflatoxin left Pakistan’s chilli less competitive in the European market. The country’s export of red dried chilli decreased 33% to Rs846 million by the end of 2006 against Rs1.13 billion in 2003-04.

National Foods approached TRIC in 2009 because the latter had previously carried out case studies on geo-textiles and agricultural textiles. After about eight months of research, TRIC came up with a geo-fabric specifically designed to minimise the aflatoxin level if it is spread on a muddy floor with chilli put on its surface as part of the drying process.

Hussain said the geo-fabric prevented chilli from being exposed to soil, reducing aflatoxin contamination, while quickly absorbing all the moisture. The conventional drying process, he added, did not involve the use of any material to separate chilli from soil.

According to a blog post Hussain wrote for his company website, a pilot project was run for a three-month period and validated in the field in collaboration with a large Kunri-based farmer in Umerkot district. Test reports from internal, government and international laboratories showed that aflatoxin and microbial contamination in the sample of chilli powder was within the EU limit of five PPB.

Last year, Hussain said, National Foods sent three shipments of 20 tons each to the EU under the pilot project. The shipments passed the contamination tests.

Hussain said the geo-fabric would be used in the production of chilli powder to keep contamination under control from next year. As for this year’s exports, he said 95% of chilli crops were destroyed in the recent floods, and the remaining produce was not of good quality.

Aasim Ahmed, who took care of the research side of the project while working at TRIC as research assistant, said the project took around 8 to 10 months from conceptualisation to execution.

TRIC is the research wing of Textile Institute of Pakistan (TIP) dedicated to the study of technical textiles.

Ahmed said TRIC got the final fabric manufactured at a factory in Karachi. “It was important for us to make sure that the fabric could be manufactured locally, so we could bring business to the local industry.”

China, India, Spain and Peru are the largest producers and exporters of chilli with an export market share of 27%, 16%, 11% and 9%, respectively. However, these numbers may change gradually as Pakistan preps to increase exports from next financial year.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 6, 2011.

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