BEIRUT: Lebanon is in need of effective food safety measures in light of the series of food scandals that the country has witnessed, ministries and experts say.
The Lebanese food industry is rife with serious issues, said AUB Professor Zeina Kassaify. “Mislabeling is the key issue and the fact that we don’t have proper law or enforcement mechanism.”
“Part of the law says we should be monitoring. ... In the U.S. they have the FDA. If they find something that is not up to standard, they penalize people. Here it’s not like that, someone says something on TV and everyone gets outraged without there being any credibility.”
Pierre Abu Nakhoul, an engineer with the Industry Ministry who also carries out inspections, said a lack of resources had hampered monitoring efforts. The ministry must follow up on certain food safety aspects with 2,000 food companies. With the available staff, it could check up on 5-10 each day.
Furthermore, about 30 percent of those food companies are operating without permits, an issue that has also affected food safety monitoring.
The real problem is the overlapping authorities of different ministries with respect to monitoring food processing activities, according to Mounir Bissat, president of the Syndicate of Food Industries.
For instance, the Agriculture Ministry monitors some aspects of production, but not all, and the Labor Ministry monitors food safety from the perspective of employees. In this way, monitoring does not appear to be comprehensive.
Establishing an independent monitoring institution, like the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., was the aim of Future Movement MP Atef Majdalani’s draft law, which he proposed in 2006 and again in 2012.
“For this commission to be effective, some powers should be stripped from different ministries, a condition that has hampered the adoption of this law and the formation of the commission,” Majdalani explained.
“Then Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan refused to give away any of his powers and vetoed the law, justifying his decision by saying that if the law were to be adopted, the Agriculture Ministry should be annulled.”
Majdalani presented the law again with amendments to appease the ministry and asked Speaker Nabih Berri to put it on the Joint Committee’s agenda.
Sources at the Industry Ministry also told The Daily Star that plans to develop another draft law for food safety had almost been finalized. Its version would see the establishment of a multiministerial committee to monitor the food industry, not an independent institution.
International organizations, however, argue that both multiministerial and independent monitoring options are needed to ensure food safety at all levels.
Mazen Khoury, whose business Dairy Khoury was at the center of a scandal last month, has felt firsthand the effects of bureaucracy on the food industry.
Khoury had added an anti-fungal agent, natamycin, to his labneh to extend the product’s shelf life. The use of natamycin in dairy products, however, is banned by standards set by LIBNOR, the Lebanese standards institution affiliated with the Industry Ministry.
As it stands, LIBNOR’s labneh regulations have not been updated since 1999, and convoluted procedures to do so have kept food industrialists at bay.
“We admit, we made a mistake,” Khoury told The Daily Star.
But he maintained, according to international standards set by the FDA and the World Health Organization, that natamycin was routinely used in products all over the world.
“We were still abiding by international standards,” he added.
The whole dairy sector suffered significant losses as a result of the Dairy Khoury scandal, and even factories that were not accused of violating standards lost sales in the weeks after the natamycin story broke.
Still, the biggest loss, as far as Bissat is concerned, is that consumer confidence in Lebanese products has been shaken.
The dairy scandal is similar to previous incidents in which a lack of oversight led to potentially tainted products hitting the shelves. Two years ago, Brothers Samih and Sleiman al-Natour were arrested for selling meat that had allegedly expired months before. Some 25 tons of expired meat were recovered during a raid on the brothers’ warehouses and those of distributors.
Similarly, in 2012, Saudi Arabia rejected a shipment of zaatar from Lebanon after tests revealed that the product was in fact less than 50 percent pure zaatar. It was determined that wood shavings were routinely added to zaatar mixes.