BEIRUT: Five men were charged with crimes related to the distribution of spoiled food Monday, as Prime Minister Najib Mikati called a ministerial meeting on food safety scheduled for later in the week.
Beirut Prosecutor George Karam pressed charges against Suleiman and Samih Mustafa Natour, and their International Company for Meat and Food Trade, for processing and selling spoiled meat and other foodstuffs, and for the attempted murders of the consumers to whom they knowingly sold expired food.
The criminal charge of attempted murder carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison with one year of hard labor, and the charge of selling spoiled goods can garner up to three years in prison with fines. Karam referred the case to Beirut Investigative Judge Ghassan Oweidat so he can issue official arrest warrants. Karam is set to interrogate the suspects Tuesday.
Police shut and sealed the Natours’ warehouse in the Beirut southern suburb of Sabra Wednesday, where they confiscated 22 tons of frozen meat imported from Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.
Also charged Monday were father and son Farouq Mohammad Ashi and Ahmad Farouq Ashi, who were arrested Friday after security found large quantities of spoiled meat and other food in their cold storage facilities in the Beirut southern suburb of Mreijeh. The two confessed to hiring workers to dispose of an additional 6,000 kilograms of spoiled meat. Police also discovered 4,183 kilograms of bad meat in a truck that allegedly belongs to Ayoub Hasrouni, who said he bought the meat from Ahmad Ashi.
The Mount Lebanon prosecutor charged the Ashis with knowingly possessing and selling expiring foodstuffs, and referred them to an investigative judge. Hasrouni was also charged.
In the wake of these and other arrests, Mikati called for a Wednesday ministerial meeting to prepare a new draft law on food safety. The ministers of economy, agriculture, justice, health, industry and interior will take part in the gathering ahead of the Cabinet meeting, as will officials from with General Security, the Internal Security Forces, army intelligence and the Customs Authority.
In a statement Monday, Mikati said that the meeting will “regulate this issue and come up with important results to ensure food safety and the safety of citizens.” He added that “we should be cautious in our approach to this problem, and avoid falling into the trap of defamation.”
Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas told The Daily Star that “Parliament and successive governments have not allowed for the establishment of a national committee for food safety,” but didn’t place the blame on any specific ministry.
A draft law to establish a national agency for food safety independent of ministerial control was first proposed in 2002, but political disagreements between the Health and Agricultural Ministries hampered progress.
As part of the ongoing crackdown on spoiled food, the authorities recently discovered 262 kilograms of spoiled minced beef, butter, green beans, fish filet, and shrimp in the Tiro area of Shoueifat, south of Beirut.
A total of 14,000 kilograms of spoiled, frozen garlic and 16,000 kilograms of spoiled frozen meat were found at the same warehouse.
In the southern Beirut suburb of Ghobeiri, police confiscated a large quantity of fish imported from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Brazil, as well as large amounts of chicken, sojouk, butter and various meats.
Spoiled grilled chicken, chicken wings and chicken bones were confiscated from a warehouse in the al-Dana area of south Beirut.
The nongovernmental organization Consumers Lebanon said in a statement Monday that “ensuring food safety does not require a miracle or an army of inspectors, but only a political decision.”
The association also said that ministries of Health and Agriculture are responsible for the lack of a food safety law.
According to the association, the recent discoveries of spoiled food should be used as an opportunity for reform in the country’s food sector.
“The judiciary is also primarily responsible [for the problem] by not imposing penalties such as imprisonment [on violators], as required by the law,” the organization said.