EGY.COM - PROBLEMS & ISSUES
Egyptian Mail, September 21, 1996
This article is not meant to be a defense of Baraka or an effort to extol its virtues and preeminence in the bottled-water market. This is about how one overzealous source can set an entire segment of the community atwitter over a health hazard. It is also about how inaccurate and uncollaborated data, though publicized with the best of intentions, can bring into question community relations, misconceptions and a host of other issues.
Baraka water is produced by Vittor - Société des Eaux Minerales, a joint venture private sector company. One of its central selling points is its affiliation with Vittel, a leading European spring water brand name, itself a division of the Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé.
The Baraka label says "eau profonde de la region de Kafr El Arbein." Translating this plug into plain English means Baraka water comes from a deep aquifer. According to a senior manager at Vittor, Baraka is nothing less than "nature's perfect beverage". Its pristine water is naturally filtered through the subsoil bedrock somewhere near Banha where it is mechanically pumped and bottled using the highest technology. Yet, despite its inspiring pedigree, rumors aimed at hurting Baraka's market share, peak each time a new brand makes its way to the supermarket shelves: Helwan, Safi, Siwa etc.
If you are one of those keen listeners, you'll find out that bottlers of 'nature's beverage,' everywhere, are awash in controversy. Even Perrier had that little problem with the chemical benzene a few years ago in the United States, when it had to recall 160 million bottles of its mineral water worldwide. As a result, yuppies shuddered, bartenders flinched, lime futures tumbled and normally well-hydrated joggers faced desiccation rather than switch to Schweppes. But to the true believers, those who used it to spray their hollyhocks or rinse their petticoats or water their Scotch, there could be no substitute for Perrier... but let's go back to Baraka before we drown ourselves in mineral fizz.
A few days ago, Chris, my forever-label-reading-neighbor, called a mutual Egyptian friend to relate what she had overheard from a reliable source at the American Embassy. Baraka water was unsafe. It brings on flu and other serious complications. This was a grim allegation considering Baraka is the only water sold in the American Embassy's employee store and cafeteria. Furthermore, it's no secret that when the American Embassy sneezes, EU and other Western legations catch bronchitis. All together, they form a powerful consumer block. (Note: Although bottled-water is not among the imports flown in by the American commissary; toilet paper is).
Even before our mutual friend could get on the phone and start the snowball rolling, in walked her pre-teen son from school waving one of these routine Cairo American College PARENT ALERTS. Somehon, this one did not have the usual security details that correlate every Sadam Hussein. Instead there was this foreboding message: "ON THE REAR OF THIS ALERT IS A MEMO REGARDING BARAKA WATER. AS A RESULT WE HAVE REMOVED IT FROM OUR VENDING AREAS".
The memo's fallout was strong enough so that not only was Baraka water removed from CAC's vending areas, but it was also withdrawn from the other expatriate-heavy business and social gathering centers plus a major five-star hotel. Thanks to the snowball effect, it also vanished from coolers, night tables and lunch baskets. Even Amin, my long-time grocer on Maadi's Road 9, sensed unexpected drops of Baraka sales.
We are talking here of a health hazard that could afflict our loved ones. Who, therefore, in his or her right mind is going to take that kind of risk especially if the rumor has been confirmed by 'reliable' American sources. Had it been the Embassy of Outer Mongolia or, yes, even that of Great Britain, which had sounded the alert, sales would have been unaffected. But since it came from Uncle Sam, there was an automatic switch to Siwa and Helwan, both of which have a lower sodium content. (A Baraka insider confirms the amount of sodium in 12 bottles of Baraka is equivalent to the amount found in one olive!)
The only ones who were not affected by this alert were Courageous Marge who drinks straight out of the tap and Penny Garza, a former US military attaché who survives on Atlanta's favorite drink.... coke.
I've got nothing against public scrutiny and quality controls. In fact, I'm a strong advocate that Egypt as a whole needs much more of both. It is, after all, lack of accountability which brought down our public sector companies earning them such a wretched stigma. But Vittor (Baraka's owner) is a private sector company with set EU-standard quality controls. What other bottled-water companies do we know of that send samples of their water every three months to the Pasteur Institute in France for an independent analysis?
CYNICAL OMMISSION OR OVERSEAS INNOCENCE?
The fated memo addressed to 'All Expartiates' emanated from John P. Famolaro, Medical Director at General Dynamics Land System, a large American company operating in Egypt. Since there is no indication this was an internal memo, the 'all expartriates was taken literally. The memo was not addressed to Egyptians working for General Dynamics or for that matter, to 'locals' working for the other US institutions in Egypt. This cynical omission cannot be mistaken for anything other than the disingenuous, patronizing and contemptuous attitude characteristic of inexperienced expatriate officials. Yet, this particular alert's initiator knew how to be simple and straightforward, leaving no doubt whatsoever that there could have been control lapses in judgment. "... Recent lab results on five of six Baraka bottles sent to a lab in Nasr City grew out bacteria that could cause flu-like symptoms... this is an excellent lab and I feel their results are very reliable." There was no mention of a second opinion anywhere in the memo which was c.c.'d to the company's Human Resources / PSS manager.
So expatriates switch to another brand. But what about the company's non-expatriate employees who go on drinking the polluted water because they weren't alerted? Won't they catch the dreaded flu and invariably pass it on to their American colleagues?! What happens next? Will there be a new memo asking expatriates to desist from any contact with the locals?
BARAKA CLEAN ACCORDING TO NAMRU
I've been in Maadi long enough and have heard all kinds of foreign community-related allegations. I've also learned that whenever there's anything amiss health-wise, from a bowwow bite to a kitty scratch, most Americans will call Mother. In this case, Mother is NAMRU.
NAMRU stands for 'Naval and Army Medical Research Unit'. Its offices are in Abbasia and, as far as I remember, it has been here for decades. It has an impeccable record and over the years contributed substantially in furthering the eradication of many a disease in this region. Why then, did General Dynamics fail to contact NAMRU before scaring everyone. Why did it put its entire trust in the Egyptian American Lab in Nasr City?
When I asked NAMRU's Captain Alfred J. Mateczun MD what he thought of the recent memo, his reply was that he had never heard of this Nasr City lab and that General Dynamics Land Systems had not contacted NAMRU to cross-check the lab's report. On the other hand, NAMRU receive year-round calls from US companies and individuals whenever there is some doubt relating to a potential health hazard. The one who did call was America's top ranking diplomat in Cairo, Ned Walker. He requested that a full investigation regarding Baraka water be conducted. Despite its lacking a full water-testing laboratory, NAMRU has the sufficient modern materiel, technology and know-how to undertake in-house water tests, which, according to Captain Mateczun, they already do on a routine basis on both bottled and tap water. Baraka water has been routinely tested and has shown consistent results.
In compliance with the American ambassador's request, NAMRU ran a series of tests. Cultures from eleven differently sourced Baraka water bottles revealed no pathogenic bacteria and micro-organisms (the type that causes disease). As a result of NAMRU's findings, General Dynamics' medical director issued a retraction memo to 'All Expatriates' dated September 8 informing them that the Nasr City lab had not cultured the specimens "in accordance with the internationally accepted ISO 6340 standard for testing water."
Furhter investigation revealed that the General Dynamics' medical director does not hold a Ph.D. in bacteriology. He is a PA meaning physician assistant whose qualifications, according to NAMRU, are those equivalent to that of a graduate nurse.
SO WHERE'S THE APOLOGY?
You've all heard what happens in the States regarding lawsuits, indemnities, etc. Had this fiasco occurred in America, Vittor's could have taken the alert-sounding company to the cleaners suing it for countless damages. There would have been no 'ifs' and 'buts' regarding the nurse/physician's naiveté or 'innocence abroad' excuse.
The author of the memo refused to be interviewed stating that "the entire matter had been resolved." When asked if everything had been resolved, Vittor's senior executive, Christophe Loubert, said he had received no written apology from the General Dynamics, nut he had received a contrite phone call from someone at the United States Embassy.
On September 9, 1996, the US Embassy issued an administrative notice No. 110 explaining that the preliminary review of the laboratory procedures that were the basis for this initial [September 1, General Dynamics] letter "indicate potential errors in testing as well as interpretations of the results." On the same day, CAC (Cairo American College) sent an ALERT UPDATE giving Baraka water a clean bill of health: "Additional testing of Baraka has invalidated findings reported earlier... further extensive testing directed by the US embassy medical staff found Baraka met all health standards."
Our occasional propensity to diagnose rain as spit had thus temporarily been contained.