Belgian producers of surgical masks could sell (even) more if there was not this competition from abroad, and mainly from China.
Published on 06.03.2021
The new virucidal masks
"In Jolimont, we buy Belgian"
Belgian producers of surgical masks could sell (even) more if there was not this competition from abroad, and mainly from China. The boss of the Altifort Boart company in Nivelles denounces what he calls “unfair competition” with products that are often “of lesser quality”.
Almost a year ago, it was the commotion in Belgium. Doctors and hospitals were running behind surgical masks which were in short supply. Worse, we had learned that Minister De Block had had a large stock destroyed. It was first necessary to deal with the most urgent, sometimes buying masks that did not really meet the standards of the European Union.
"Disappointed because we could produce twice as many masks, if we were supported by the federal government "
— Bart Gruyaert, CEO of Altinfort Boart
Since then, the situation has changed a lot. The government appealed to the goodwill of business leaders who quickly started making “made in Belgium” masks. In Wallonia, this is the case of Altinfort Boart in Nivelles and Deltrian in Fleurus. The first was specialized in the design, production and marketing of high-precision super-abrasive tools. His boss is Flemish, his name is Bart Gruyaert and he is a little “disappointed”. “Disappointed because we could produce twice as many masks, if we were supported by the federal government”, he blurted out on returning from a business trip to Lille. “We produce two million surgical masks per month. Instead of the 4 million originally planned. We only run on one machine with two shifts of 5 workers”.
"There are still too many Chinese masks on the Belgian market. And the competition is often unfair "
— Bart Gruyaert, CEO of Altinfort Boart
The company therefore hired 10 people instead of the 20 planned. “There are still too many Chinese masks on the Belgian market. And the competition is often unfair”. “Unfair? , he is asked. “You want an example? Belgian producers are obliged to put the notice in the three languages. Often, for Chinese masks, it is only in English or even only in French. People often prioritize price. They prefer to pay 50% less… even if the quality of these masks only reaches 70% whereas, for the Belgians, it is more than 98%”. He talks about EFB, the bacterial filtration efficiency of these masks. Bart Gruyaert concedes that not all Chinese masks are of poor quality. “Those that have the same quality as ours are sold more or less at the same price. What we are asking the government to do is be more vigilant and enforce the standards. The time is no longer today for shortages, quite the contrary”.
An opinion more or less shared by Jean Kalyvas, marketing and communication director at Deltrian. “We could produce 100 million masks per year, we are between 1.5 and 1.7 million per week”, he specifies. “It’s true that it hurts when you lose a market sometimes for a difference of 1 cent per mask, but the legislation governs calls for tenders”.
To survive and continue to progress, Belgian companies must innovate. This notion is well understood by the managers of the Deltrian company in Fleurus, where 20 jobs have been created since they started manufacturing surgical masks. “We are aware of the competition and it is for this reason that we rely heavily on research and development“, explains Jean Kalyvas, marketing and communication director of the society. Deltrian has partnered with a Belgian-Luxembourgish spin-off called Molecular Plasma Group. It has developed a microscopic coating inactivating the viral particles that settle on the mouth masks. This will reduce the risk of contamination when handling these masks.
“This protective layer was developed based on citric acid that we already find in food, cosmetics or tissues. It is totally harmless for the wearer”, says MPG. “The machine producing this diaper arrived last week. We are currently testing it and, next week, we will start the mask production tests,” Jean Kalyvas tells us. “We have a small exclusivity to produce them earlier than the others,”, he rejoices. A press conference is scheduled for March 18. The additional cost of these even safer masks would be minimal.
“Some hospitals would prefer to buy Chinese masks of lower quality than Belgians”, denounces the boss of Altifort Boart. “Since Belgian producers have been doing it, I can tell you that this is not our case”, says Bruno Lefébure, the financial director of the Jolimont group. “We were in contact with this gentleman’s company but our choice was finally made with the Flemish firm Brumed. Sentex Belgium’s analysis report guaranteed a bacterial filtration efficiency of more than 99%. You know, a penny per mask may not seem like much, but when you order between 100,000 and 200,000 masks per week, it can quickly add up”.
There, the financial director tells us, he has just received an order for 576,000 masks from Deltrian in Fleurus. “That is 24 pallets of 24,000 masks. It’s top quality because that’s what we want for our staff and for the patients”. These masks will be sent to the six hospitals that make up the Jolimont group. “I’m talking about simple normal surgical masks, not FFP2. At the start of the epidemic, we had to deal with the most urgent matters. There were no more Belgian masks and we sometimes had to destroy stocks of lesser quality material.
"Our board of directors made it clear to us that we had to buy Belgian, even if it was more expensive "
— Bruno Lefébure, Chief Financial Officer of the Jolimont group
He admits: “Our board of directors made it clear to us that we had to buy Belgian, even if it was more expensive. I know it is contrary to respect for public contracts but I take it on myself. With our lawyers, we are working on a parade that relates to a guarantee of supply and crisis storage provided by the company with which we placed the order. Because, yes, we have been let go by the government and it is a former soldier who says so”. Military who did not digest that Belgium destroys its stocks.
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