Ministry seeks to thwart Ramadan price fixing

A woman buy vegetables at a supermarket in Beirut. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

BEIRUT: No serious price hikes in basic food items have been noticed on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, a senior official at the Economy and Trade Ministry told The Daily Star over the weekend. A nationwide campaign to monitor the consumable products was launched late last month, according to ministry Director-General Fouad Flayfel.

“We have started this campaign 10 days ago and we aren’t only checking the prices but the quality of food as well. So far we haven’t noticed any serious breaches because merchants realize that violators will be penalized financially,” Flayfel said.

He added that the ministry had a list of all the main food prices with which restaurants, supermarkets and groceries were forced to comply.

Some merchants have been known to exploit the surge in demand for vegetables, fruits and Arabic sweets over Ramadan and either hike prices or fiddle the weight of goods.

Prices of fruit and vegetables are most commonly affected, followed by rice, oil, cheese and labneh.

Merchants often attribute such inflation to increases in demand that correspondingly result in decreases in supply. High prices of some basic food items can also be caused by fluctuations of the dollar or the euro, one consumer advocate said.

The ministry has 50 monitors in the consumer protection department and officials believe that this number is enough to handle all complaints.

“Consumers can also call the Economy Ministry to complain about the quality of food or prices. Once we receive this complaint we dispatch the controllers to the shop or supermarket,” Flayfel said.

The ministry’s official Web page updates the prices of the main food items every week, and consumers can call 1739 to lodge complaints.

He added that most merchants were placing the prices on every commodity and that if they failed to do so they would be fined by the ministry.

Flayfel said merchants realized Lebanese consumers were more aware of the official prices and wouldn’t be easily duped.

But a consumer advocate said it was difficult for 50 employees to monitor all restaurants and shops in Lebanon, calling on the authorities to hire more people and give them proper training.

Caretaker Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas called on the merchants to respect the month of Ramadan and refrain from tampering with prices.

He said the ministry was keen to keep all the prices of basic food in line with the official rates.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 08, 2013, on page 5.




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