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The dangers of dining out

Lack of proper accreditation leaves restaurant-goers wary of what’s on their fork

by Niamh Fleming-Farrell

"For a situation like ours we do need scandals,” says Zeina Kassaify, head of the Lebanon Association for Food Safety (LAFS).

The uncovering of caches of expired products in warehouses, poor food preparation procedures in kitchens and generally improper food storage practices may have done the Lebanese economy no favors, says Kassaify, but it did provide a “wake-up call” for the food safety sector.

Accordingly, she says there has been an increased interest among restaurant owners in the activities of her organization, founded in 2010, which carries out inspection, monitoring and certification.

Nabil Rizkallah, general manager of food safety consultants GWR Consulting, echoes this view, describing a marked uptick in business over the past year, while Paul Ariss, head of the Restaurants Association, reports, “more than 300 ventures have signed contracts with food safety consultants and professionals.”

However, while the demand for food safety certification may be on the rise, the context in which these certifiers operate, and the absence of an active independent Lebanese accreditation body to oversee them, means that even if a restaurant has more certificates than menu items, customers may not be able to trust that the seals on display reflect the culinary reality in the kitchen.

Lebanon did establish its own accreditation body, the Conseil Libanais D'Accreditation (Colibac) in 2004. However, to date it is not operational, explains Léna Dargham, acting director general of the Lebanese Standards Institute (LIBNOR).

LIBNOR is a member of the International Standards Organization (ISO), an affiliate member of the European committee for standardization (CEN) and the Codex Alimentarius contact point in Lebanon (see table). LIBNOR uses ISO 22000 standards, European and Codex Alimentarius standards alongside HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) and other international systems and standards, to publish its own guidelines for Lebanese establishments. LIBNOR, however, does not have a certification or accreditation role in the food industry.

What this means is that certification companies operating in Lebanon are accredited abroad and often with reputable bodies. However, removed from their accreditors and functioning in the Lebanese context, a gap between the standards and practices as written on paper, and their implementation in reality, may have emerged.

Kassaify, without disclosing the names of the companies in question, claims that certifiers, in order to increase their client base and turn a profit, “were being lenient with [restaurants].”

What’s certification worth?

Upon the establishment of LAFS, which functions as a non-profit, non-government organization, Kassaify went to food establishments that had contracts with these certifying companies to inspect them.

The grade she gave to many was “below zero,” says Kassaify. “You cannot have hired a company to do a certification or implementation of a system and still be below zero after nine years. There is something wrong with this.”

In scrutinizing the problem’s origin, Kassaify says she uncovered that companies eager to ensure a client base in the country were unwilling to impose standards so rigorous they might scare business off.

As they say though, it takes two to tango, and GRW’s Rizkallah reports that restaurants may put pressure on food safety auditors to provide certificates, logos and seals as soon as they forge a relationship with them. Indeed, his firm instituted a commitment label at the behest of customers who “asked for something to show their clients.” GWR only issues the label once a restaurant passes their audits with a grade better than 85 percent and no major nonconformities. It reassesses each premise on a monthly basis. Rizkallah says, however, “Some eateries will actually approach certain ‘certification’ companies that issue what is called a ‘certification in process’, which is given upfront and not after being audited. This is a very easy way out.”

Ensuring credibility

Seeing that the food industry genuinely adheres to food safety standards requires a twofold pressure, says Kassaify. First, it requires a regulatory system that is extensive, compliant with international standards and implemented strictly, with clear penalties for violations. Second, it requires a consumer culture in which customers hold restaurants accountable, and ask their public representatives to ensure establishments are policed for food safety and punished if in violation.

Furthermore, a reliable food safety certification industry requires a series of checks and balances, with accreditation bodies that oversee the certifiers to ensure that they are awarding certifications appropriately. And finally, independent consultancy bodies should be available for the food industry to confer with, in order to bring their practices and premises up to scratch before calling in a certifier.

Colibac should, according to the 2008 text of the draft Food Safety Law, “specify the local and international laboratories, accreditation agencies and pre-testing and control bureaus, whose food safety-related certificates are recognized by Lebanon.”

However, as Colibac is presently not operational and all the functioning certifying companies work with the approval of an overseas accreditation agency, close monitoring of the certifiers may often be unfeasible, opening the space for shortcuts to be taken and standards to slip.

For example, GWR’s Rizkallah points out that overseas certification bodies often cannot verify the relationship between certifying bodies and consultancy firms, which should operate independently to avoid conflicts of interest. In Lebanon, the interaction of consultants and certifiers locally is unregulated and unmonitored, he says, exposing the sector to corruption and enabling the unethical awarding of certificates.

Business still cooking

Yet, while the certification industry may not be ethically watertight, Kassaify says there has been a definite increase in interest in her organization’s services in the past year, with businesses approaching LAFS rather than vice versa. Moreover, she says, some certification bodies have approached LAFS for assistance in implementing minimum standards in food outlets. But most of this activity is at the top end of the market, among well-known restaurant chains that have an interest in franchising. At the lower end of the market, she explains, there is no perceived added value in seeking certification and therefore no interest.

Likewise, Rizkallah says that while food safety scandals have expanded the market for companies like his, the demand for these services is coming from bigger restaurant chains, which he says, make up “less than 1 percent” of the market. That’s a tiny number of the some 7,000 permanent eateries and at least a further 1,000 seasonal restaurants, which Ariss estimates are doing business in Lebanon. He estimates that about 90 percent of the latter are unlicensed.

However, within some municipalities, the Ministry of Economy and Trade, which oversees the Directorate of Consumer Protection, has initiated training and policing schemes to ensure businesses meet basic food safety standards.

The ministry has trained 327 staff in 27 municipalities across Lebanon to oversee establishments’ adherence to consumer protection laws. Monitors from the Directorate of Consumer Protection patrol local food businesses alongside municipal police, and the ministry reports positive feedback from participants on its food safety initiatives.

Rizkallah, whose company is contracted by several municipalities to inspect food outlets’ premises, attributes the successful implementation of better standards to citizens within the municipality putting pressure on their elected local representatives to improve regulation. He also says there is a correlation between municipalities with better food safety standards and those in which the electorate permanently resides: That is, in municipalities along the seaboard. Standards tend to be lower in mountain municipalities where the electorate is often nonresident.

Straying from extra expense

Cost may be one deterrent to small eateries seeking certification. Rizkallah says many small enterprises feel they cannot afford a food certification program. LAFS, as a nonprofit, only charges clients the costs it incurs in carrying out laboratory tests and providing training. However, the seal it awards is not an internationally recognized certification. Acquiring such a standard can prove costly, and the returns may appear limited.  Large chains with advanced food safety systems have invested extensively in the area; for example, Roadster, which was the first ISO 22000 certified restaurant chain in the Middle East, spent upwards of $300,000 to bring its premises and practices up to the standard, says its food safety manager Lea Naoufal. (Only a handful of restaurants have ISO 22000 certification, says Rizkallah.)

Of course smaller enterprises would incur much lower costs than Roadster, which, Naoufal says, feeds approximately 1 million people per year, but those costs are not insubstantial. Ariss estimates the cost of food safety certification is between $1,500 and $2,000 per year, “depending on the company and the services that the restaurants require.”

Rizkallah’s company can train a business with about 15 staff and inspect its premises 12 times per year for approximately $2,500. The return is not a certification, as GWR Consulting is not accredited, but rather an award label. However, as Rizkallah points out: “The cost excludes any structural improvements [removing walls, installing ventilation, etc.] that should be carried out by the restaurant… This kind of cost is sometimes prohibitive.”

If a restaurant then wants to be certified according to accredited international standards, it will have to bring in a certifying company to audit its premises, which adds a further layer of expense. For example, Bureau Veritas, which provides such certifications, estimates that an average-size business can gain ISO 22000 over the course of three years at an approximate cost of $6,000, excluding the cost of structural adaptations.

All in the mind

A simple lack of understanding and awareness of food safety protocols and measures is also a contributory factor to restaurants not seeking certification. Rizkallah points out that in Lebanon there is “no guidance given for implementing food safety.”  For the time being, however, food safety advocates keep up their struggle for improved standards. It’s a battle waged on two fronts, addressing consumers not in the habit of demanding higher standards on one side, and the food safety sector and regulatory bodies on the other. But, until such time as the regulation and certification system is copper-fastened, customers will need to remain vigilant: As so long as there are loopholes and plausible shortcuts, profit-seeking food outlets and certification bodies are likely to take advantage.

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Niamh Fleming-Farrell


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