Lebanon spoiling the Zaatar? Bakeries cash in using dangerous additives
The traditional herb mix is in doubt.
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It’s delicious, filling and ranks among the top meals to start the day. The mankoushe is considered a staple of Lebanon’s rich and varied diet, a cultural pride. But in the country, fraud has reached even this cherished meal.
This oriental wrap comes in the meat, cheese and thyme-mix varieties, the latter having grown in popularity in the wake of last year’s food scandal of dairy and meat produce.
“I turned to the mankoushe with zaatar because meat and dairy are now at risk of becoming bad. I assumed zaatar was safer,” Nidal Youssef, a bank employee, said as he grabbed his breakfast from a Beirut bakery – a ritual for many Lebanese kick-starting their day.
Opting for apparent chicanery, which have in some instances harmed Lebanon’s reputation abroad, some bakeries in the country use a thyme mix that has less of the herb and more additives that could cause bacterial infections and possibly food poisoning.
In 2012, Saudi Arabia rejected a zaatar shipment from Lebanon after lab tests revealed that the mix did not even contain 50 percent of the herb, a high-ranking industry source told The Daily Star.
Beirut, the source said, refused to take back the shipment and it was later destroyed in Riyadh.
The source and several bakers have admitted that some of the zaatar mix used for the wrap contains much more than just sumac, sesame, a hint of salt and thyme, which are only the vital ingredients.
“[Some of the grinderies] mix thyme with what they describe as wheat derivatives, but it is actually shavings of spoiled kaak and bread, but sometimes [stale] crusty bread,” Mohammad Halbawi, owner of Halbawi Grindery in Beirut, said.
Other grinderies, noted Halbawi, don’t even use zaatar and instead rely on a mix made purely from bran, some spices and a green dye that gives it an herbal smell and look resembling the real ingredient.
“Not even a zaatar guru can distinguish the taste of fake zaatar from the original mix,” he said, adding that even an “average mankoushe lover” would struggle to spot the deception.
Like all businesses looking for even a minimal profit in this country’s economy, bakeries seek ways to cut costs, such as making their own zaatar mix or buying it ready-made in bulk.
“There is a huge difference when you buy 1 kilogram of zaatar for LL30,000 ($20) and LL3,500 ($2),” the owner of a prominent bakery shop in Gemmayzeh said, preferring to remain anonymous.
“Small bakeries probably buy the latter because the cost accumulates and a shop buys hundreds of kilograms annually,” he said, as he took orders from customers in his tiny hole-in-the-wall bakery.
The man said prominent bakeries like his own have devoted customers which ethically prevents him from fooling his valued clients with “spoiled zaatar,” and damaging his reputation.
Industry sources confirmed that bakeries use different ingredients to decrease the cost of zaatar, which is why mankoushe prices vary so widely at different bakeries – between LL500 and LL3,500.
Wood shavings are also found in the zaatar mix, according to one baker, and is sold depending on the “percentage of shavings” the baker wants.
Peter Jishy, who recently took over the ownership of a small bakery in the Metn neighborhood of New Rawda, was shocked when a man stopped by their shop to sell them zaatar.
“When we agreed to buy from him, he asked us what percentage of wood shavings we wanted in 1 kilogram of zaatar as if this was a normal question,” Jishi said.
“I immediately declined his offer because my friends, family and I will be eating from this bakery,” the 22-year-old said. Jishy speculated that some bakeries around the area probably buy the seller’s produce, “otherwise why would he drive around the neighborhood nonchalantly.”
The young man now buys zaatar from his village in south Lebanon.
Customers, he adds, have commented that they find his zaatar has a “sharp” taste. “They’re used to having a crappy mankoushe, I guess,” the baker opines.
The industry source also noted that some bakers even use kfour, which he repulsively noted is “used in mummification.” Kfour is also a type of bakhour (Arabian incense).
Nutritionists and doctors said that such ingredients could potentially cause bacterial infections and poisoning. Others voiced uncertainty on the issue.
Although some grinderies refused to speak to The Daily Star with regard to the wood shavings in zaatar, others rejected the claims altogether, describing them as “completely ridiculous.”
The head of the Association of Bakeries in Lebanon, Kazem Ibrahim, admitted that some bakeries might use a fake zaatar mix but said it was the responsibility of the government to monitor the shops.
“This is not the responsibility of the association but of the Economy Ministry or the Health Ministry,” Ibrahim said. He added that the prices of produce go up but the government fails to subsidize anything which might prompt business owners to bake “a fake mankoushe.”
Adding different ingredients to zaatar is common among bakeries, president of Consumers Lebanon Zuhair Berro said, attributing the regularity of such fraudulent and deceptive practices to the inefficiency of the Economy Ministry.
“We have knowledge of these practices and they are widespread,” Berro said. “In Lebanon, many goods undergo such a process due to the proliferation of fraud and deception.”
The activist said his organization is merely tasked with defending the consumer but the government should “protect them.”
“There is a government absence in this regard, particularly from the Consumer Protection Directorate.”
The Consumer Protection Directorate operates under the Economy Ministry and is well aware of the fraud carried out at the bakeries, but it waits for citizens to file complaints to launch investigations, the high-ranking industry source said.
President of the directorate, Fouad Fleifel, said the department took samples from the market almost two years ago and tested them for the presence of wood shavings. The move came after the directorate received complaints.
The results came out negative, he said. However, he also noted that he had tasked the directorate with analyzing a new set of samples from the market after The Daily Star contacted the Economy Ministry for comments on the issue. This time around, he added, the samples were also taken from different bakeries.
The results of that sample will be out next week, said Fleifel, who urged citizens to contact Consumer Protection’s call center at 1739 if they have any complaints regarding manakeesh.
He also urged citizens not to turn a blind eye to such practices.
“I can send 10,000 people from the directorate to take samples in Lebanon but there are some 4 million citizens in the country who are the primary watchdogs, not only on authority but also on such services,” he said.
Fleifel noted that some people might not turn to state-run departments due to the lack of trust in successive governments, but reiterated his department’s readiness to act upon any complaint.
“The moment the whole scandal about spoiled produce surfaced, we worked nonstop because people kept calling and registering complaints,” he said. Any bakery that violates food safety measures will be prosecuted and probably shut down, Fleifel warned.
One shop owner even offered The Daily Star some tips on how to examine a zaatar mix at home to check for unwanted additives. “You put some of the zaatar in a glass of water; the zaatar should sink to the bottom while the bad stuff should float,” he said. “If the water changes its color then there is probably dye in that mix.”
Would the additives put you off buying the baked goods? Or is cost cutting just a part of the trade? Tell us what you think below.
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