Food scandals in Lebanon have become a common occurrence. In 2012, a warehouse full of expired and contaminated food that were being distributed to 190 shops, hotels, and restaurants throughout the country was discovered. A few months ago, three tons of expired meat were confiscated in Tripoli. Last year, Compassion in World Farming released a horrific video of the conditions in the Karantina Slaughterhouse, a major supplier of meat to Beirut. Compassion in World Farming described the slaughter house as chaotic: “Everything is coated in a layer of blood, faeces and body parts. The slaughter area is heaving with people, live animals and slaughtered bodies. The sounds and smells are overwhelming.
Earlier this week, the Minister of Public Health, released a list of restaurants and stores that did not meet the health standards in the country, many of which were well-established and popular chains. The inspections took place over 20 days and examined 1,005 establishments all over Lebanon. The establishments were evaluated on cleanliness, compliance with food safety protocols and personal hygiene of employees. These revelations caused an outrage in the country, while the Minister of Tourism and the President of Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs, and Sweetshops in Lebanon criticized the announcement claiming that restaurants were already satisfying standards placed by the Ministries of Economy & Trade and Tourism and warned against defamation of the restaurant industry and its effect on Lebanon’s already fragile economy.
One of the main problems in Lebanon is that there is no comprehensive food safety law, even though a draft was introduced in 2003. The law would have set national standards for the food industry, tackle the entire supply chain and establish an independent body in charge of ensuring food safety, a responsibility which is currently scattered to several ministries – some of whom worried about losing some of their powers and thus resisted the law’s adoption.
Given the history of food safety in Lebanon, these revelations are not surprising. However, the Health Minister did not fully divulge information on the findings of the inspections, raising questions about the purpose of the revelations and their reliability, as well as the standards that were being used – given that there are no comprehensive national standards. The Minister stated that the products had “microbes that could have negative health implications for Lebanese” including Salmonella and E. coli (linked with sewage contamination) but did not mention the severity of the contamination, the criteria that were not met in each location and even failed to identify the stores with the biggest violations, leaving the public to suspect all of them.
Government action on food safety will only truly safeguard the country’s residents if they:
- Were based on nationally adopted standards and criteria that tackle all parameters (not just bacteria) and products.
- Undertaken systematically, regularly and fairly (i.e. ALL violators are duly fined and penalized).
- Include a system for information sharing is ongoing, transparent and accessible to the public.
Anything less is tantamount to fear mongering.