Lebanon: Food scandal creates upset, not surprise

Published March 22nd, 2012 - 07:21 GMT
Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas added that strict measures would be taken to control the import, storage and distribution of food
Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas added that strict measures would be taken to control the import, storage and distribution of food

The recent uproar following the discovery of large amounts of expired meat and food products has brought about many promises by ministers and government officials for stricter regulations on the importing and distributing of foodstuffs.

Despite these promises, residents of Beirut remain unconvinced that local establishments are meeting the proper health standards.“It’s shocking,” said Michael Amtakly, a TV producer for MBC, adding: “Most of my friends and my parents have stopped going to restaurants and stopped getting products from big hypermarkets. Instead we go directly to the butcher.”

Tamara, a nutrition student at AUB, concurs. “It’s really bad. It’s shocking because it shows that people don’t care [about food safety]; they just want to make money,” she said. Tamara said she felt safest cooking at home where she had more control over the products she consumes.

The unsafe products list, according to government officials, ranges from chewing gum, potato chips and coffee to the staples of meat, chicken and fish, cheese and labneh.

Makram, who was strolling through the busy neighborhood of Hamra, said authorities had to step in immediately to curb such unsafe practices as much as possible, given the issue is directly connected to people’s health. “It’s serious. When it comes to food, we cannot delay the solution,” Makram said. “It’s really urgent, and it’s not like the issue of gasoline.”

Makram expressed surprise that state agencies and non-governmental organizations had failed to demonstrate better preparedness and shown a lack of competence. He said there should be more awareness on these sorts of issues and people should be educated on how to secure their rights in terms of food safety. “Lebanese people didn’t need this drama of having to stress over what we eat,” said Ali, an art director. “It sent us into panic mode.” He also said those behind the spoiled food should be punished and there should be more vigorous laws applied to those importing food products.

Ali says he now avoids eating outside the home because the amount of spoiled meat shown on TV was staggering. Saria, a mother who spent eight years in Dubai, described the situation as a “disaster.” “They’re cheating all people,” Saria said. “I’m afraid for my kids.” While this news may come as a bombshell to some, other Lebanese aren’t surprised.

Carina, a customs relationship management consultant, told The Daily Star that she wasn’t taken aback because “there are so many messed up things in this country” and that she “never ate meat outside the house.”

“This issue has been around for over two years,” Etoile Najem, the quality manager for Diet Delights nutrition center told The Daily Star, adding: “Many companies have expired products, it’s not just meat.” “What shocks me is [the small monetary amount of] the fines.” With the public ill at ease, various politicians have weighed in on the debacle in an effort to reassure the populace.

Speaking Tuesday at the opening of the 20th edition of the regional hospitality, food and beverages services expo Horeca 2012, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud acknowledged that there had been “unintentional mistakes committed in recent days over the scandal of spoiled food.”

Abboud described the scandal as a “crime against the Lebanese people” as well as touristic venues “who work around the year to develop their techniques and kitchens to reach world standards,” and said the issue needed to be resolved. He stressed it was unacceptable that some offenders should ruin the reputation of other venues. “We refuse to have Lebanon be described as corrupt, particularly when it comes to food and cuisine, [on] which we pride ourselves around the world,” he said.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati vowed last week to apply stricter measures on food safety, while Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas added that strict measures would be taken to control the import, storage and distribution of food. Najem, however, feels this is empty talk, citing the case of over 35 tons of expired potato chips found by police in the town of Ghazieh last month. “The factory is still open and nothing’s changed.”

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