Stories about merchants being arrested for selling spoiled milk, rotten meat, or sawdust infused zaatar have abounded in the Lebanese news media over the past year, as has coverage of the government’s efforts to enforce the consumer safety law passed in 2005.
But discussion of Lebanon’s mounting food safety  crisis has paid little attention to the portions of the law that have not been fully implemented, specifically provisions that would make it easier for customers to seek legal compensation from predatory merchants and that established a Dispute Settlement Committee to arbitrate civil cases involving goods costing over $2,000.
Though the Economy Ministry appointed a judge and two committee members to represent the interests of business owners and consumers respectively, the panel has never met, according to two of the three members and the ministry’s head of the Consumer Protection Directorate, Fouad Fleifel.
The failure to implement part or all of a law is nothing new in Lebanon. But the mounting incidents of food safety violations have put consumer safety  in the spotlight and raised concerns over the potential conflict of interest arising from the ministry’s mandate to protect the rights of merchants and their customers.
Consumer advocates argue that commencing operations of the Dispute Settlement Committee would create an important check on the Economy Ministry’s enforcement ability and function as an additional watchdog to monitor retailers.
“The law gives the ministry control of dispute resolution, but the dispute settlement committee is supposed to be separate from the Economy Ministry,” said Mohammad al-Darwish, the legal director of Consumers Lebanon . “How can you be the minister in charge of businesses and also ensure that consumers are treated fairly? It is a fox watching the hen house situation.”
Darwish renewed pressure to convene the Dispute Settlement Committee in a petition to the Economy and Justice ministries this week. In the letter, Aldarwish claims that the Economy Ministry simply needs to appoint a clerk for the Dispute Settlement Committee to be operational.
The petition also accuses the Economy Ministry of capitulating to pressure from businesses who are against the creation of the committee.
Nabil Fahed, the vice chairman of the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce who was appointed to represent retailers on the Dispute Settlement Committee, and Fleifel confirmed that the committee had not been fully staffed yet, but claimed this was because they lacked any disputes to resolve.
“Whenever we are called to a meeting I will go,” Fahed told The Daily Star. “I don’t think it is a matter of us not being ready to meet. As far as I’m told, there are staff members that still need to be appointed by the ministry. What I know for sure is that there are no cases pending. So if we met we would have no claim to review.”
Until the committee is convened, most Lebanese consumers whose rights have been violated must rely entirely on the Economy Ministry, rather than the courts, to penalize violators, and by taking this route they forfeit compensation.
The ministry’s enforcement process begins with a call to the Consumer Protection Directorate hotline.
Fleifel told The Daily Star that it receives an average of 25 calls of reported violations per day.
The complaints are submitted to inspectors who decide which merchants are guilty of violations. In many cases the store is ordered to reimburse the consumer, but it determines anywhere from five or 10 of the complaints it receives each day to be legitimate legal violations to be decided by the court.
In these cases, the ministry’s legal team submits a full complaint against retailers who it deems guilty of violating the consumer protection law to the Justice Ministry.
The Economy Ministry’s objective is to get a judge to fine the retailer between LL5 million to LL30 million for each violation, and a claim is usually processed within four to 10 months, Fleifel said.
This is certainly a speedy legal resolution by the standards of Lebanese civil courts, but the victim won’t see any of this compensation. Under the law, the fine is divided between the treasury, a judge’s mutual aid fund, a fund created by the consumer protection directorate, and various inspectors at the Economy Ministry.
Until the Dispute Settlement Committee is operational, the only other way consumers can defend their rights under the consumer protection law is to file a case in civil court and wait up to 10 years for a decision.
“You can do it in the normal way,” Fahed said.
“You can just sue if you want.”