To eat and where to eat: That’s the question

To eat and where to eat: That’s the question
Unlike much of the food that ends up on people’s plates, Lebanon’s food scandal is exactly what it says it is: widespread neglect of food safety standards in a country otherwise known for its cuisine.
7 min read
27 November, 2014
'Lebanese don't know what they are eating' (Getty)
For a country riven by political and sectarian tensions and violence that are exacerbated by a civil war next door and uncertainty over the future, it might have seemed the political equivalent of complaining of a fly in the soup.

But Lebanon’s food scandal has caught the popular imagination, set social media platforms ablaze and even fed into the country’s many political and sectarian fault lines.

It also lent itself to pithy online turns of phrase.

     The fact that the system is flawed, paralyzed and complacent is no secret

- Georges Saad
“The Lebanese are eating shit,” read a Facebook post. “Now we know it for sure: we are literally eating shit,” another Facebooker swiftly reposted.

The scandal erupted with a dramatic 11 November press conference by Wael Abou Faour, Lebanon’s health minister, during which he named and shamed several food establishments, local and international, that had failed food safety tests.

“The Lebanese don’t know what they are eating, and it would only be worse if they knew,” the minister said at the time. His intervention caused an outcry.

Many supported Abou Faour’s outspokenness, but others were critical. Perhaps not surprising, one prominent critic was the minister of tourism, Michel Pharaon.

“I’ve learned from the ministry that al-Hallab has a laboratory that assesses products on a daily basis, and exports products to Kuwait and many countries in the world. It has a laboratory where its food is tested and it might be better than the Health Ministry’s laboratory,” Pharaon said, taking a rather cheap shot at his colleague’s ministry facilities.

The rate of food poisoning in Lebanon is lower than in any other country in the region, the minister added, without, however, providing tangible evidence.

Political and sectarian rifts

The barb raised suggestions of a political rift in the government. But Pharaon and Abou Faour both belong to the March 14 Alliance, and those rumours were swiftly dispelled. Rather Pharaon, as tourism minister, seemed anxious about Lebanon’s image. Lebanese food is famed worldwide, and damage to its food industry could have economic repercussions.

Still, and in true Lebanese style, another political intrigue was soon found, this one with a sectarian subtext. Abou Faour’s food safety programme had been launched in September and involved periodic inspections across the country. Except, critics suggested, not in the south or in Dahiyeh, a predominantly Shia area.

Some smelt sectarian strife. After all, March 14 and Hizballah have been at odds for years. Did the Shia movement prevent food inspectors from the March 14-controlled ministry from accessing restaurants in areas under it control?

Abou Faour himself rejected such reports. “This battle is not political,” he said at another news conference on 14 November while visiting the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture and authorized by the Food and Agriculture Organization – one of the accredited laboratories where food samples are tested.

“The campaign covered all the regions. I do not exclude Dahiyeh, as I do not exclude the Chouf,” he said in reference to his hometown district. “The first establishments I have announced are in the Chouf and every region I announce [as part of the campaign] is because I serve its people, I protect their health. It is not about Christians or Muslims; it is not about favouritism.”

Rather – and unlike much of the food that often ends up on people’s plates – Lebanon’s food scandal is exactly what it says it is: widespread and shocking neglect of food safety standards in a country many identify as having one of the best cuisines in the world.

Shocking neglect

This year alone, hospitals have recorded some 960 cases of food poisoning, according to health ministry statistics. This is in addition to the unknown number of those who didn’t seek treatment.

Indeed, over two days at the very time the public furore surrounding the food safety issue was at its peak, 22 people arrived with food poisoning at a single medical centre, the Maan El Youssef Medical Center in Halba in the north, according to Yolla Sarraf, the centre’s infection control coordinator at the centre. Eleven were admitted for treatment.

What's for dinner tonight? (AFP)

And the source of contamination? “A local restaurant called ‘Delicious’,” Sarraf said without hesitation. “They had all eaten there but they are no longer at risk and most of them have left the hospital.”

People have now started questioning whether to dine out at all. “We don’t know where to eat anymore; there are people who got poisoned at the KFC,” a young man at a sidewalk café in Burj Hammoud, an area in Beirut’s northern suburbs, said.

Few establishments have escaped censure. International fast-food chains such as Roadster Diner, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC were found to have failed to conform to sanitary and food safety standards. Similarly, numerous local restaurants as well as chicken and dairy product establishments such as Kababji and Hawa Chicken were also put on an extensive list – one that has yet to be finalized.

The ministry’s investigation was extensive, and it findings were dramatic. Tested meat, chicken and dairy samples revealed the presence of bacteria such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E-coli), Listeria, Staphylococcus and others, all of which cause vomiting, diarrhoea and headaches and can develop into something worse in the vulnerable.

Some even contained traces of faeces – hence the many social media jokes.

Problems right along the food chain

The ministry also found many food establishments to be unlicensed, others operate in poor sanitary conditions or without having their employees undergo necessary medical tests, while yet others operate in premises unsuitable for food storage (with inadequate temperature controls or storage facilities).

Many sanitary problems can be traced back to wholesalers or producers, providers such as slaughterhouses and farms. A decision to shut down a number of slaughterhouses in Beirut and Tripoli in the north was taken last week. More closures in the south are likely to follow.

In one slaughterhouse in Ghazieh, there were no “veterinarians, health certificates, large refrigerators to store meat, or containers to suck out waste materials,” Abou Faour said recently.

In one place, health ministry officials could not even enter because of “bilge water and blood that covered most of the slaughterhouse’s sections” as well “bad odours and fleas inside and outside [the premises].”

Many of the bigger companies made sure to welcome the ministry’s report. Roadster Diner thanked Abou Faour’s “efforts to ensure the safety of the Lebanese public” and vowed to improve the quality of its products.

Lina Ali Ahmad, the marketing manager for McDonald’s also welcomed the ministry’s findings, while stressing that the bacteria identified in McDonald’s chicken nuggets was not harmful to consumers, and that the company was looking to solve the issue.

“Our chicken is imported from Jordan, where it is tested before being sent to us and here we test it again under the Agriculture Ministry’s control before also having an internal audit at McDonald’s,” she said. “Now we have to find out what happened.”

Kababji’s marketing manager said “a statement was being prepared and information was being collected [regarding products found unsuitable for consumption] and was to be communicated to the Health Ministry in a couple of days,” without elaborating further.

Shocking as the report’s findings were, it was also not surprising to many. Lebanon’s government is famously chaotic and the state, whether in enforcing laws and regulations or in uniting the country’s many different sects, has always been seen as ineffectual.

“The fact that the [government] system is flawed, paralyzed and complacent is no secret,” said Dr. Georges Saad, director of Preventive Medicine at the Health Ministry.

Some officials in charge of inspecting food establishments report either lacking the training to carry out their jobs, the equipment needed for the task or were simply being negligent, Saad said. This, he added, had created disequilibrium between different Lebanese governorates and contributed further to accusations that certain Lebanese regions were left uninspected.

The investigation goes on. Some results are still pending and Abou Faour has pledged to carry on the inspections. But for all the publicity surrounding the campaign and the public support it has created, some people have begun to get distinctly cynical again, citing corruption and institutional amnesia.

“This whole country is formed of mafias,” said one man, implying that the country’s “tycoons” would do everything they could, including bribing government officials, to preserve their businesses.

“This will cause some fuss at first, just like the smoking ban inside public places, and then everyone will forget about it, including the officials,” a young woman said.