Lebanon News

Contaminated food charges leave a bad taste

The Roadster diner restaurant in Jal al-Dib, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Lebanese expressed mixed reactions Wednesday as the country continued to reel from the shock of being told that some of its most popular restaurants were serving contaminated food.

In Metn, some residents were skeptical of the claims made by Health Minister Wael Abu Faour during a high-profile televised speech Tuesday afternoon, while others admitted it had made them think twice about eating at certain places.

Roadster, Kabaji, Hawa Chicken and McDonald’s were among the Metn-based restaurants Abu Faour listed as having contaminated products. Although neither the Roadster Diner nor the Kababji in Jal al-Dib were packed Wednesday afternoon, both had customers.

Employees at Kababji said the restaurant’s traffic was normal for that time of day and that dishes using minced meat – a tarnished food product at this branch of the popular chain, according to Abu Faour – were still being regularly ordered.

At the Roadster Diner in Jal al-Dib, an employee, speaking anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said that business was normal thanks to the restaurant’s loyal fan base.

“Yesterday, I was surprised [because] there were more people than usual,” the employee said. “Today, a gastroenterologist came up to me and said, ‘I’m a gastroenterologist and I trust you guys.’”

Another employee told The Daily Star that he had been on a high protein diet for three years and regularly ate Roadster’s chicken breast – the product Abu Faour claimed was bad. “My health is getting better,” the employee said. “I’m not joking.”

Roadster offered The Daily Star a sample of the chicken breast but The Daily Star politely declined.

Standing outside a mobile phone shop a couple of blocks away, Maurice Baho, 30, admitted he was worried. “I don’t watch the news but I’ve heard the talk,” he said. “The issue of Roadster is very important. I don’t eat anywhere else.”

However, Baho said he had seen the cleanliness of the various restaurants in the area and was confident that Roadster’s food was clean.

Others were not so sure.

“It opened my eyes to Roadster,” said local Nayef al-Antar, 20, a freshman at the American University of Culture and Education in Sid al-Bouchrieh. “Before, I never had a problem going to eat there but now I prefer not to go.”

Many of the older men interviewed by The Daily Star said they rarely ate outside of their homes but that the news was still concerning.

“There was always fear [about the quality of food] but now there is definitely a worry,” said a man waiting outside a building around the corner from Roadster, who refused to disclose his name. “Even the vegetables need extra washing.”

For many residents, however, there was nothing to do but make light of the accusations.

“You came to the wrong place, these guys don’t care about what they eat,” Mario Klayaany said jokingly as he gestured to a group of young men loitering around his moped store. “They’ll eat a horse if you put it in front of them.”

He paused, before adding in a serious tone: “But we don’t know where [places like Roadster] get their chicken. Maybe they get it from Hawa Chicken or maybe they slaughter the chicken behind the store.”

The scandal was also the focus of skepticism by a number of locals who questioned the authenticity of the ministry’s findings.

“Before judging these restaurants, they should be judging the inspectors that go and check. This is the problem,” said Georges Abu Jaoudeh, a local mechanic. “You’ll find that someone gets a job with these places that check on these restaurants and a year or two later you’ll see that he’s got a villa and a car worth $100,000, from where? I’m working from the crack of dawn to sundown and I can’t feed my family.”

“Bribes are everything,” he added. “There’s nothing ruining the country more than bribes.”

Perhaps predictably, many restaurant staff also echoed these sentiments. “We’re not waiting for the ministry. We always have checks, we always have audits, we all have sheets to fill,” a Roadster employee said. “We have standards.”

The employee said that seeing as all Roadster Diners used the same equipment and products, it didn’t make sense that the branch in Jal al-Dib was cited but not other branches outside of Beirut, such as Jounieh.

Still, until more facts come to light, people are likely to treat restaurants tarred by the scandal with restraint.

“People are asking and that’s their right,” the employee said. “They want make sure if this is true or not.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2014, on page 3.

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