The lack of proper food standards and regulations is one of the leading factors that have contributed to the recent food scandal in Lebanon. Monitoring and inspecting food establishments are neither practical nor transparent when there is no clear set of criteria to compare to. The best way the Lebanese government can combat this issue is through quickly passing and implementing a comprehensive food law, supported by procedures and standards. Anything short of this will not resolve the problem, and a food crisis will emerge every few years. Over ten years ago a similar controversy occurred, and the health minister at the time declared that a food safety law will be issued within 6 months. If that law had materialized as promised, the food industry would probably not be in such a dire situation today.
Last month a comprehensive food safety draft law was approved by Parliament’s Joint Committees. The draft law is meant to set the legal framework for food safety in the country; very similar to how Law 444 for 2002 set the environmental legal framework in Lebanon. The draft law covers different steps of the food production process: slaughterhouses, packaging, farming, retail, etc. This law will require many supporting decrees and ministerial decisions but it will be an important first step.
One of the most important components of the draft food safety law is the creation of the Food Safety Lebanese Commission (FSLC). One of the current problems is lack of clarity on ministerial jurisdiction regarding the food industry. When the Health Minister revealed the malpractices in the food sector, a conflict arose with the Tourism Minister who has jurisdiction over restaurants. The Ministry of Economy has a Consumer Protection Directorate which deals with consumer issues, including food-related issues. The Ministry of Agriculture deals with famer issues as well as livestock. The establishment of an entity such as the FSLC will avoid all this confusion. The FSLC will be managed by a seven-member commission of food safety experts from different backgrounds and has the overall responsibility of ensuring that the food safety law is implemented. The FSLC will also be responsible for monitoring the various stages of the food chain and send inspectors to institutions serving or selling food products.
The Ministry of Public Health has recently published food safety guidelines. The guidelines define different issues that are related to food safety. The guidelines also contain basic food safety standards that the World Food Organization recommends to adopt such as preventing pathogens from contaminating food by washing hands, separating raw foods, cooking foods at the appropriate time needed to kill bacteria and pathogens, storing food in suitable temperatures and use of clean water and raw materials, While these guidelines are important to show the Ministry’s determination in keeping the issue on the table, they seem quite general and a long stretch from what is needed to create transparent standards and criteria that safeguard human health.
Lebanon has also developed a nasty habit of loosely enforcing certain laws shortly after the PR campaigns promoting their adoption have served their purpose. Prime examples are the traffic law and smoking law that were only imposed for a short period of time but are now generally ignored. Periodic and systematic enforcement should be a top priority to guarantee success.