BEIRUT: The past month’s power cuts have left households across the country with electricity that comes and goes unpredictably. As negotiations to end the Elecricite du Liban contract workers’ strike drag on, accusations are exchanged, while the country remains subjected to hours without power. Trekking up flights of stairs, and hot apartments with no air conditioning are obvious hassles, but long hours without electricity may also have serious implications for food safety, and residents without generators are particlarly at risk.
Those in the Beirut area have found it impossible to keep food such as fish, meat and dairy products fresh. Locals and experts say that unsafe refrigerator temperatures are leading to food waste and increased risk of food poisoning.
Dany Hammoud, from Beirut’s Basta Tahta neighborhood, remembers his mother pulling packages of spoiled meat and chicken out of the fridge after a long power cut nearly a month ago. She was upset at the loss of food for their family of five.
“This summer is the worst summer,” Hammoud said, “This didn’t happen before. They cut the electricity but not like this.”
His household does not have a generator, and each day is a new guessing game as to when the power will go and come. For a few days, the power didn’t come at all.
“Every day, we don’t know when the electricity is going to go. Normally it goes for three hours, but this summer it’s gone for six hours, nine hours, sometimes 13 hours every day,” Hammoud said.
The hardship endured by the Hammoud family strikes a familiar chord across households in central Beirut. As MP Mohammad Qabbani stated after a parliamentary meeting two weeks ago: “Complaints from Beirut are the most bitter ... because the recent malfunctions have been fixed in all areas except for Beirut.”
The continued cuts in Beirut are the result of problems carrying out repairs to power stations. As The Daily Star previously reported: “The harsh electricity cuts in the capital, which have increased from three to more than 12 hours per day, are the result of a technical malfunction in a 66,000-volt cable [in a power station] near the UNESCO building, according to EDL.”
Hammoud said his family had had to throw away meat, chicken and dairy items. He estimated their daily loss at approximately $30 worth of groceries.
“Since the beginning of the summer, every day we have to throw away something,”
As a result, his family has started buying less at the supermarket and spending more on eating out and restaurant delivery – a change he said has caused monthly food expenditure to sharply increase.
“Before, we were spending $300-400 per week [on food]. Now it is like $700.”
A study last year by Professor Hussein Hassan and colleagues monitored refrigerator temperatures from households sampled in three major cities: Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon. They found that 71 percent of homes had an overall refrigerator temperature above 6 degrees Celsius, putting occupants at risk of food poisoning.
Hassan, a professor of food science and technology at Lebanese American University, presented the study in the United States this August at the annual meeting of the International Association for Food Protection. The study will soon be published in the International Journal of Refrigeration.
Hassan said food safety was a widespread, but often overlooked area of concern in Lebanon.
The study found that Beirut had the highest internal refrigerator temperatures of the three cities, at an average of 8.8 C. In Beirut, fewer people have generators than in other cities because of a law passed in the 1990s that forbade private generators in the capital due to hope at the time that the country’s electricity woes would be resolved
Given that for the last few weeks, power cuts have lasted far longer than three hours a day, Hassan said: “We should expect the 8.8 temperature to be even higher.”
A multitude of factors affect refrigerator temperature, including appliance age, condition of refrigerator door seal, capacity and distance from a nearby heat source. None of the fridges sampled had a thermometer to verify the effectiveness of the fridge cooling system.
“In the fridge, you don’t stop microbial growth, you simply slow it down. The typical fridge temperature should be 4 C, then you can keep raw meet for up to one week. Any more than that, there is higher probability of getting food poisoning,” Hassan said.
He said the danger zone was 5 C to 6 C in the refrigerator and he recommended that freezers be kept at a temperature below -10 C.
Researchers for Hassan’s study found a lack of awareness about proper refrigeration practices. They were shocked to find 15 percent of households preferred to unplug the refrigerator in order to run the air conditioner, if they feared that power supply would be cut from running both at the same time.
“The idea is, ‘food can tolerate a lack of electricity, but we can’t tolerate the lack of ac,’” Hassan said.
From household questionnaires, the study team found that, usually, people were hesitant to throw away questionable meat, believing it was safe as long as it was cooked. This is untrue, as heat-stable toxins can remain in the food even after it has been cooked. Encouraging people to throw away meat is no easy task, Hassan said. “You cannot tell this to a poor guy, because for a poor guy, to have meat is a privilege.”
Cases of food poisoning are rarely diagnosed and traced back to the source. Few are likely to go to the doctor or hospital; most prefer to save time and money by going directly to the pharmacy for medication.
Hassan said: “When they get food poisoning you can’t tell if it was poor storage at home or if food they buy was contaminated.”
He added that impoverished areas of the capital, where many residents couldn’t afford alternative power, were especially vulnerable to increased levels of food poisoning.
Hasan Zreik, a resident of Beirut’s Al-Tariq al-Jadideh neighborhood, has learned to be choosy with where he eats and how he stores food, because of his past experiences with food poisoning.
He has no generator, and for the past month, the electricity has gone off for six to nine hours at a time every day.
He normally buys groceries, but rarely has he done so in the past month. “I mostly eat out. Even when I buy them, I don’t keep them for several days, even when refrigeration is good, because vitamins dwindle with time.”
Hamra resident Fayez Fadda also has no generator service and spoke of similar practices in his home. His mom normally cooks, but her grocery shopping has decreased. “She is not buying big quantities like before,” Fadda said.
Reflecting on behavior found through his study, Hasan said that people were prioritizing other issues over food safety.
“I think because the priority of people these days is security not electricity,” Hassan said.
Given the threat that spoiled food poses, and the widespread risk to Lebanese under current conditions, he added: “The most brilliant scientist would not be able to explain how we are still alive.”