When Charbel quit his job recently as a quality control inspector at a catering company that owns a chain of restaurants in Beirut, he felt nothing but relief.
“It was a miserable job,” says Charbel, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “No one listens to you … it’s not the kitchen staff, it’s the management. They don’t want to spend any money.”
Although he won’t reveal the name of the restaurant he was responsible for monitoring, Charbel describes it as a member of a five-star chain with an attitude toward food safety that is laissez-faire, to say the least.
“The refrigerators don’t work, foods get stacked on top of each other,” he says. “You have vegetables that come in, they stay in the open air for a couple of days, then the mould comes in and the worms, and when you tell them, they just pick [out] the rotten ones and throw them away but leave the rest.”
Charbel says that government inspectors would visit the kitchen, but would rarely notice the flagrant health violations that were taking place.
“The government inspector simply overlooks these things,” says Charbel. “He came once and just said to the manager, ‘I don’t want to see your kitchen, I’m just going to say it’s fine.’”
In fact, according to Charbel, lab tests were actually conducted on food items in the restaurant, and the results shocked him.
“Most of our products contained harmful bacteria,” he says. “For example, we tested our ashta [cream], which we get from a known supplier in Beirut, and it contained Listeria,” a bacteria which can lead to Listeriosis, which can cause pregnant women to miscarry. “Our meat contained salmonella,” he says, “our chicken as well.”
Asked why customers didn’t complain about cases of food poisoning, Charbel laughs. “No one suspects that a five-star restaurant would give them food poisoning,” he says.
“This is one company, but from my understanding, it’s not an isolated case. This seems to be common in Lebanon. How many people get food poisoning and don’t have enough [money] to go to the hospital?”
Zeina Kassaify, a professor at the American University of Beirut’s department of nutrition and food sciences, and president of the Lebanese Association for Food Safety, says that often, Lebanese consumers who get food poisoning from restaurants don’t report the incident.
“They don’t like to lodge complaints,” says Kassaify. “It might be a cultural thing, or it might be that they don’t have the knowledge and the education concerning food safety.”
Kassaify says that currently, there is no unified governmental system to assess and manage food safety violations. “The responsibilities are so fragmented,” she says.
“You have four or five different ministries that have responsibilities toward food safety … but when you ask whose responsibility it is to administer penalties, you won’t get a satisfactory answer. It’s so chaotic.”
After the July airing of a television show, Kalam al-Nass, on LBCI, which exposed some of the unsanitary conditions at restaurants in Lebanon, a draft law originally introduced in 2002 was revived by the Agriculture and Economy ministries.
Kassaify says that this law was originally intended to establish an independent body that governs food safety issues, similar to the U.S.’s Food and Drug Administration.
“This type of model has been around for a while and it seems to be the most effective,” she says. “However, it is my understanding that the draft law was stalled because no one could agree upon who is in charge of this independent organization and there were worries that it would take responsibilities away from existing ministries.”
Mariam Eid, head of the agro-industry department at the Agriculture Ministry, says that the ministry has already begun to implement a system for regulating food safety that requires all Lebanese companies that produce food to register with the ministry.
“Every day we make a plan, we go to two or three companies” says Eid. “We have a check sheet and an evaluation procedure, and we give a grade based on food safety. The company will have a certification that says they were evaluated by the Ministry of Agriculture and they have implemented all the necessary requirements for food safety.”
If they do not meet the requirements, says Eid, they will not be allowed to distribute their goods either locally or for export, although they are given six months to comply with the order.
As for the draft law, Eid says that the Ministry of Agriculture doesn’t see why all the responsibilities of food safety should fall to an independent body.
“Here is the difference in our vision,” she says. “We believe that we can do this – we can’t understand why we should create an independent body. This body should be under the umbrella of a ministry, not to just take some professors from the universities and give them the authority to do what they want, while the ministries sit without doing anything.”
The ministry believes the assessments could be conducted by an independent body, while the ministries have responsibility for implementing decisions, including shutting down places that don’t meet requirements, says Eid.
“Our vision is to create a scientific body to make assessments, while the ministries do their job, which is to control hazards.”
Kassaify says that Lebanon desperately needs an independent body that is authorized to handle issues of food safety. “That’s the point, to have a group of experts that are capable of implementing a system and following it to the end,” she says. “Right now, that’s not happening.”
The draft law is still being amended and debated. Eid says that the ministries of agriculture and economy have come to a consensus regarding some of the changes to the original law.
“I think the first meeting will be within two weeks to discuss this issue and if we and the Ministry of Economy have the same vision, everything will be very quick,” she says.
In the meantime, Dr. Rita Slim, a gastroenterologist at Hotel-Dieu de France Hospital, says that consumers should be careful about where they eat and how they prepare food at home.
“We have to pay careful attention to the quality of food we are eating, to the restaurants we are going to,” says Dr. Slim. “We must pay attention to keep food refrigerated at all times, especially raw meat.”
By Sulome Anderson