One man’s army

Wael Abou Faour’s food safety campaign may not outlive him

'General' Abou Faour

On a crisp February morning just before dawn, two boys walk down the narrow street leading to the center of the Sabra meat market with short knives tucked away in sheaths attached to their belts. Just a few months earlier, Health Minister Wael Abou Faour had told a press conference, “I’m embarrassed to show the media what the inspectors discovered at Sabra.” According to a writeup in The Daily Star on the conference, the minister said he’d also ordered the closure of a few butcher shops in the camp. When Executive visited in February, evidence of closures was nowhere to be found. One butcher — who asked not to be named — said the camp’s slaughterhouse had long been shuttered. Indeed, the daily Al Mustaqbal reported the closure back in 2003. Today, predawn Sabra is an open air market for wholesalers selling to retailers. Beef sold in the market is slaughtered elsewhere. For Hassan Merhi, a young man who only recently joined the family business, elsewhere is privately run slaughterhouses in Choueifat or Fanar.

 “Actually, all over Lebanon they are slaughtering outside of the slaughterhouses”

Merhi’s uncle used to ply his trade at the Beirut slaughterhouse. He says his family has been slaughtering for generations — claiming his great-grandfather used to walk sheep from Medina, Saudi Arabia, to Beirut. Refusing to be too specific or offer exact figures, he confides that transportation costs involved in moving operations from outside Beirut to Sabra are high so the family sometimes clandestinely slaughters somewhere in the city. Knowing that’s illegal, he won’t say where. Merhi’s cost saving scheme is not, however, unique. 

As is often the case in Lebanon, Executive was not able to get exact statistics on illegal slaughter practices, but Bassel Al-Bazzal, head of animal health services at the Ministry of Agriculture, knows it’s happening. “Actually, all over Lebanon they are slaughtering outside of the slaughterhouses,” he says, as he takes Executive on a virtual tour of the private and public slaughterhouses in the country. Repeatedly referring to a list compiled in 2013, which he says is confidential, Bazzal explains that there are a total of 14 licensed private slaughterhouses in the country — 12 of which are in Mount Lebanon. “But there are some [private] slaughterhouses that are not registered yet, so we can say there are more than this,” he says. Additionally, there are 13 public abattoirs run by municipalities.

“We inspect the places, not the process of slaughtering. It’s not possible to go at night”

Monitoring mishaps

Licenses, he says, come from the Ministry of Industry while the Ministry of Agriculture provides a health registration number, which he explains is not exactly a license, but is necessary for a slaughterhouse to run legally, as per Law 949/1 from 2011. The Ministry of Agriculture has veterinarians on site to inspect meat post slaughter to ensure it is ready for market. The ministry also has inspectors who visit abattoirs to see if they comply with technical and health criteria, Bazzal explains. They visit during the day, after the actual killing — which takes place in the wee hours of the morning — is finished.

“We inspect the places, not the process of slaughtering. It’s not possible to go at night,” he says. 

Not seeing the process also decreased the usefulness of a recent and well publicized visit to the Beirut slaughterhouse by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Maurice Saade, the FAO representative in Beirut, tells Executive in a telephone interview that the body is refraining from making specific recommendations until members can see the abattoir in action. “We need to come back and visit once it’s reopened,” Saade says. He explains that the FAO has prepared a report and, as of mid March, planned to hand it over to the Ministry of Agriculture. He says that because the ministry commissioned the report, it will be the ministry’s call whether or not to make it public. 

Murky mandate

Both Bazzal and Walid Ammar, director general of the Ministry of Public Health, place the responsibility of regulating unlicensed slaughterhouses at the doors of the country’s various municipalities. Ammar explains that the ministry has 70 inspectors spread throughout Lebanon (which he says is too few, pointing to the 170 inspectors employed by the Ministry of Economy and Trade). These inspectors are under the administrative control of the governors of the country’s six governorates, meaning it is the governors who should be sending them out on inspections on a day to day basis, Ammar says. If ever there is a ‘health event’ — such as a concentrated outbreak of food poisoning — Ammar notes the ministry’s role is to order inspectors to investigate. Further, the ministry can send inspectors to do preventative investigations if authorities have reason to suspect a health event may be imminent. As an example, Ammar points to swimming pools, saying that last summer children got sick after visiting certain pools, so this year inspectors will monitor them before they open for the season.

Existing legislation does not directly address food safety, which means different ministries have overlapping authorities

When it comes to food safety, Ammar recognizes there are problems in Lebanon, but admits it was not his first priority as an issue that needs to be addressed. He says that when a new minister takes office, he presents a list of priority interventions based on his own research for the minister to consider (unlicensed ‘beauty clinics’, for example). In the case of Wael Abou Faour, Ammar says the minister was the one to push hard on food safety. Ammar does argue, however, that the country needs a unified food safety law. Existing legislation does not directly address food safety, which means different ministries have overlapping authorities. Cabinet approved a draft law earlier this year but it is unclear when Parliament will consider the draft.

And while there has been no shortage of media hype surrounding a handful of serious cases of food poisoning, the numbers — while slightly outdated — paint a different picture. According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Public Health, foodborne diseases are by no means an epidemic in Lebanon. For example, in 2011, there were only 311 cases of food poisoning reported to the ministry and only 15 documented cases of parasitic worms. In 2012, the most recent data, there were 319 food poisoning cases, and the number of people with parasitic worms jumped to 36, but that still represents 0.0009 percent of a population of 4 million.

“The health inspectors are the army of Abou Faour now”

Numbers aside, Abou Faour seems determined to continue with his crusade, which Ammar says is putting stress on the ministry’s inspectors. “The health inspectors are the army of Abou Faour now,” he says. “It’s his own army,” he adds with a laugh. Asked if that army will outlive its general, Ammar is far from optimistic: “We need a bigger budget; we need more resources; but what we [really]need is other ministries [and the municipalities] to do their work.”

Matt Nash

Matt is Executive's Economics & Policy Editor. He has been reporting on Lebanon since 2007 with a focus on oil and gas, policy and legal matters.

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