BEIRUT: Recent seizures of spoiled food by the Consumer Protection Office are merely a media stunt that only scratches the surface of the problems of food safety in the country, the head of Consumers Lebanon said.
“This is not enough to control the situation in Lebanon,” said Zuhair Berro. “If they do one or two media campaigns, good, but for us it’s not enough.”
The CPO has made three major confiscations of expired meat and fish produce since Feb. 23, and Thursday confiscated a large quantity of expired fish in Hadath, south of Beirut.
The director-general of the Economy Ministry, Fouad Flaifel, denied that the recent confiscations were a media stunt, and said they were part of the daily work of the office.
However, he said that the office suffered from a lack of funding for personnel and equipment.
“Nowadays I have 142 people working in the market, and I think I need another 200,” he said. “According to the facilities we have, we’re doing more than enough.”
Berro said that the Economy Ministry was ignoring the law by not taking cases through its own tribunal process.
Flaifel told The Daily Star that the ministry did not have the resources to set up a separate court, as mandated by law, but that it was referring cases to the Justice Ministry – 274 cases were sent in 2011.
A judge who works on food safety cases told The Daily Star that those that are processed through the court are a fraction of the real issue.
“The violations against food safety that are revealed such as the selling of spoiled or expired food in stores and restaurants are incomparable to those that are hidden and threaten people’s health,” said the judge, who requested anonymity. “Food monitoring institutions such as the Consumer Protection Department and organizations that volunteer for such missions every now and then catch expired food goods.”
He also added that the judiciary issues “harsh verdicts and heavy fines in order to prevent them and prevent others,” although Berro said the ministry was failing to apply full sentences to individuals involved in its confiscation cases.
Knowingly selling, or attempting to sell, spoiled food or beverages is punishable by three months to two years in prison, or a fine from LL100,000 to LL1 million, depending on whether the goods harm people’s health.
According to the judicial source, the courts usually do not hand down prison sentences unless the case results in any deaths.
Issues of food safety were thrown into the spotlight last year after a documentary aired on LBCI exposed poor hygiene practices in restaurants and other food preparation places. Shortly after that, the agriculture and economy ministers agreed to introduce a new draft law on food safety.
Addressing the issue has been complicated by the fact that several ministries hold jurisdiction over the matter. The CPO’s council has director-generals from nine different ministries, including the Economy and Agriculture ministries, which Flaifel said was the reason it has met only six times since 2005. “It’s difficult for them to be there,” he said. “It’s difficult to have them all together.”
Experts in the field, including former Agriculture Minister Adel Cortas, have called on the government to establish a separate body responsible for food safety, similar to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.
Zeina Kassaify, the president of the Lebanese Association for Food Safety told The Daily Star that an independent body would likely increase efficiency in food safety inspections, in comparison to the current system which divides the responsibilities between various ministries.