Home Economics & Policy Where’s the beef?

Where’s the beef?

Beirut’s butchers seem to have moved their operations, but where to is anyone’s guess

by Matt Nash

The most conspicuous result of Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib’s November decision to close the city’s main slaughterhouse because of unsanitary conditions is the lack of impact it had on the market. The price of cattle and sheep meat remained stable as supply was, apparently, completely uninterrupted.

[pullquote]Chebib says he does not know where the butchers who were using the slaughterhouse are currently practicing their trade[/pullquote]

“Are you still eating the meat in Lebanon?” Chebib asks Executive. After receiving an affirmative reply, he continues, “this means the market is in chaos.” Chebib says he does not know where the butchers who were using the slaughterhouse are currently practicing their trade, but notes that if there are more slaughterhouses in Beirut, “they are illegal.” He says that the Municipality of Beirut’s 13 health inspectors are on the lookout for outlaw abattoirs and insists his decision to shutter the slaughterhouse was not directly related to Minister of Health Wael Abou Faour’s food safety campaign, launched in late 2014. “I was nominated in May, and I had many, many, many problems and files. When I opened this file, I found that something had to be done, and I’ve done it. That’s what happened.”

Cheap rent

The 1977 law that governs municipalities gave them authority to “[protect] individual and public health” and “[ensure] the health control” of “all the places in which food or beverages are manufactured and sold” within their jurisdiction. This includes slaughterhouses. In the case of Beirut, the municipality is in direct control of the abattoir, and its general director is a city employee. Chebib, who left his job as a judge when appointed governor, does not elaborate when Executive asks what legal justification the city has for actually running the abattoir — after all, the city doesn’t run all of the restaurants within its jurisdiction. Instead, he explains that it is a result of a tradition dating back to the Ottoman era.

The current slaughterhouse was built in 1994 and was intended to be a temporary facility. Like many things temporary or interim in Lebanon, however, 21 years later, no permanent alternative has been found.

Joseph Mounem, director general of the slaughterhouse, explains that its existence was the result of a postwar compromise. In 1966, the city built a slaughterhouse in the Karantina neighborhood, according to a mid 1970s magazine detailing city accomplishments that an advisor to Chebib showed Executive. 

War forced the building’s closure, and Mounem explains that by the early 1990s, the butchers who once used it were instead slaughtering animals in the then-largely destroyed Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium on the southern edge of Beirut’s city limit. When the government decided to rebuild the stadium, the butchers had nowhere to go, Mounem says. Instead of paying them to leave via the Fund for the Displaced, a compromise was reached. The old slaughterhouse was by then a Lebanese Army position, so the city built the butchers a new slaughterhouse in 1994 near the port on land owned by the government until they could be relocated. That never happened, so the meat traders — who numbered 20 in 1994 but only 12 today, Mounem explains — continued work in favorable financial conditions. Mounem says each week between 900 and 1,300 sheep were slaughtered in the facility along with between 170 and 225 cattle. He explains that the butchers paid a municipal tax of LBP 5,000 ($3.33) plus VAT per head of sheep and LBP 10,000 ($6.67) plus VAT per head of cattle. When the municipality tried to raise the tax on sheep by LBP 1,000 ($0.67) and the tax on cattle by LBP 2,000 ($1.33) in 2000, the butchers protested and eventually forced the municipality to rescind its decision in 2003, Mounem says. Executive has been unable to reach any of the butchers.

[pullquote]Many argue that the Beirut slaughterhouse should be moved[/pullquote]

Data deficiency

Information on the country’s meat market is scarce. According to Mounem’s figures, the Beirut abattoir accounted for 8,840 to 11,700 slaughtered cattle and 46,800 to 67,600 sheep annually. Statistics from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, covering 2010–2011, show that during that year, there were 63,000 cows and 375,000 sheep in the country, but does not say how many were slaughtered in that period. Executive has not been able to find a breakdown of the meat market, and could not reach Maarouf Bekdash, president of the meat traders’ syndicate, for comment.

As for the future of the Beirut slaughterhouse, many argue that it should be moved. Municipal Council member Hagop Terzian tells Executive that there are both political and sectarian reasons why the abattoir has remained where it is for so many years, but refuses to elaborate on exactly what that means. Asked why no previous governor had addressed the unsanitary conditions at the slaughterhouse, Chebib offers, “I don’t look behind me.” He says the building is currently being renovated but did not follow through on a commitment to give Executive the refurbishment plans. That said, he admits he also wants to move the slaughterhouse and explains, “We are studying the map in Beirut and its suburbs. There is a tradition that Beirut must have a slaughterhouse, but that doesn’t mean it has to be in Beirut.”

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Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.

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