Shaping up or shipping out? Lebanon’s meat industry stinks

When two separate shipments of spoiled Indian meat were detected by inspectors at Beirut Port in June, the government was quick to claim that the successful police intervention proved the meat safety “system” in Lebanon worked well.

“Everything is under control. There is no bad meat in the country,” said Ali Hassan Khalil, the agriculture minister, in a statement to the press.

Critics, however, including fed-up members of the meat industry itself, were not as confident. For some, the 250 tons of spoiled meat that rotted away at the Port for several weeks before being shipped back to India was just one indication of a much larger problem. Lebanon, the critics said, still had a long way to go in meeting rigorous, international health and safety standards when it comes to meat.

By mid July, the government seemed to agree. After an intense press conference by the Cattle and Butchers Syndicate, and public scorn from the nascent public watchdog group Consumers Lebanon, both of which pointed to previous shipments of spoiled meat from India, the government issued a ban on all imports of Indian meat – which is to go into effect in mid September since some shipments from India were already en route when the decision was made.

In taking such sweeping action, the government grudgingly fell, at least partly, into line with the EU, which has for years banned meat imports from India because of health and safety concerns. Although the Lebanese government had long argued that the UN deemed Indian meat safe – claiming that the EU’s actions were more about protecting their own domestic meat industry – the twin incidents of spoiled meat seemed to raise enough concern about the costs of continuing to do business with the country, considering that Lebanon imported 75% of all frozen meat consumed last year (6,841 tons out of 9,124 tons in all).

Of course, the decision was not easy – frozen meat from India costs about $1.5 per kilogram, less than chilled meat from Brazil or Paraguay, which costs $3 per kilogram, and substantially less than fresh meat from live European cattle, which costs $5 per kilogram.

Since Lebanese SHAWARMA, as but one example, is primarily made from frozen Indian buffalo meat (cows are sacred in most Indian states), the inescapable political reality is that it’s only a matter of time before the Lebanese consumer feels the pinch. As one industry source explained, “The demand for cheaper and cheaper meat, like from India, has grown steadily, just as the old sources of meat have become more expensive.” Indeed, faced with growing price differentials, the composition of the Lebanese meat diet has changed considerably over the last decade. In fact, some observers now estimate that 15% of all meat consumed in Lebanon is frozen, 25% chilled, and about 50% fresh. Rewind to ten years ago and about 75% of all meat at the dinner table was fresh, derived from live cattle slaughtered locally. Frozen meat represented only a small part of the market.

Live cattle is still Lebanon’s number one commodity import, ahead of cigarettes, at a total value of $135 million last year, but imports of frozen meat from India have risen by 27% and 57% in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Added to this is the fact that nearly 95% of all meat needs are now being met by overseas sources. Gone are the days when Lebanon had a thriving domestic livestock system.

For some critics, the government’s decision to halt the increasing stream of Indian meat imports appeared to offer tacit acknowledgement that, even though inspectors ostensibly discovered the spoiled meat, some risk was present that the meat might have entered the marketplace – health and safety controls, these critics said, were not as strong as the government claimed.

According to one industry source, who, like most wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, the spoiled Indian meat caught at the Port had actually been turned away from Jordan the previous week. When it arrived in Beirut, it was actually a competitor who tipped off ministry of agriculture inspectors that the meat was bad. A top official close to the issue disputed this notion though, saying that international sampling procedures were used on all meat imports, which includes taking a piece from the front, middle and back of each 22 ton container of frozen or chilled meat that arrives in Lebanon and testing it for bacteriological and viral contaminants. The government official was confident that the three inspectors assigned to test meat and monitor livestock at the Syrian borders, the airport and the Port would have caught the spoiled meat. However, according to the industry source, the government does not have enough inspectors to check the multitude of shipments that arrive each day in Lebanon, some of which, the Cattle Syndicate argued publicly, bear false or misleading certificates of origin, validity, and composition, further complicating the process. As the industry source put it tersely, “I don’t let my children eat meat unless I have seen the cow myself.”

Indeed, according to several industry sources as well as top government officials and at least one international expert, the government’s action against Indian meat really should be seen as a kind of surface maneuver, one that deferred, or anticipates (depending on how you look at it), the more difficult kinds of systematic reforms that are needed throughout the meat sector in order to ensure that Lebanese consumers are adequately protected. The reason for this sentiment is threefold: first, Lebanon currently has no food safety law protecting consumers, nor does it have an integrated system for measuring outbreaks of food borne illnesses or problems that occur at meat facilities. One can only wonder if this lack of statistics is why even critics of government food safety practices are also usually quick to assert that the Lebanese don’t really get sick from meat. (Of course, the 60 people recently sickened by a meat borne E-Coli outbreak at two separate wedding banquets in Lebanon would probably disagree.)

Second, the central government has little control over the 40 or so slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities in the country – nearly half of which are essentially unlicensed, despite handling nearly half of the 40,000 tons of meat consumed in Lebanon each year. Since municipalities control and monitor the slaughterhouses that lie within their own jurisdictions, a patchwork of irregular standards and procedures has emerged that inhibits industry wide surveillance and early warning measures. This chaotic situation has even led the Cattle and Butchers Syndicate to call for the closing of the main slaughterhouse serving Beirut, the Quarantine, saying that only a completely new facility could meet modern health and safety standards. As one top official closely involved with the issue put it bluntly, “The slaughterhouses present a serious problem.”

Such a conclusion is not altogether surprising, especially when considering that, as one representative from the ministry of economy and trade – the agency charged with inspecting slaughterhouses, processing plants and meat products – acknowledged, “We do not have enough inspectors.” Add to this the fact that the agency acts primarily as a “complaint driven” institution and what you have is a situation where the Lebanese consumer is left to trust an industry with little in the way of uniform, transparent standards and practices, not to mention vigorous oversight separate from local interests. Third, in banning meat imports from India, the government avoided dealing with the issue of Paraguayan meat, which the EU bans on similar grounds as Indian meat (10% of all chilled meat imports are from Paraguay, with the other 90% from Brazil). This concern may not be a factor for much longer though, as several sources closely involved in the issue predicted that it would only be a matter of weeks before meat from Paraguay was also banned. Despite the problems and late-inning measures, it appears that Lebanon is finally moving ahead with reforms in the meat sector. Both the ministries of agriculture and economy, in addition to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, are pushing forward a food safety law that will help Lebanon gain World Trade Organization membership, as well as better protection for consumers. Significantly, the draft law, which is expected to be taken up by parliament during the next session, aims to centralize authority over the various elements in the meat industry through a Lebanese Food Safety Agency. That body will, hopefully, put in place the law’s new standards and guidelines as well as serve as a proactive monitoring and enforcement regime for all levels of the meat industry. While stressing that the proposal was “excellent” and met the highest international standards, one non-governmental expert involved in the effort acknowledged that centralizing authority over what is now a sprawling web of interests involving butchers, supermarkets, slaughterhouses, ports and processing plants would be a “big challenge.” Either way, it’s a challenge that has clearly been made less daunting in the wake of the spoiled meat flap. According to Zuheir Berro, Consumers Lebanon’s executive director, the momentum couldn’t have come any sooner. In mid July, barely one month after the Indian meat seizures, the ministry of agriculture announced that 25 tons of spoiled fish had been detected and seized at Beirut Port. In one published report, a ministry source said that the importer of the fish was the same one who had tried to bring the spoiled Indian meat into the country in June. “There is an international mafia with connections inside Lebanon” facilitating the entry of spoiled meat, said Berro. “And we have no food safety law. Enough is enough. We need reform now.”