Health Minister Wael Abou Faour caused quite a stir by telling the Lebanese they are eating “shit” — his word, not ours. What he failed to do, however, is give any details about the methodology and precise results of tests on food his ministry recently conducted. In short, Abou Faour spread fear, not information. He also failed to point out that testing food and water once in a blue moon does nothing to ensure that they are consistently meeting health and safety standards. Lebanon has several laws and decrees setting standards for food, water and the preparation of these two necessities; the problem — as always — is enforcing these standards and punishing those who violate them. This is especially true for unlicensed and unregulated small scale water distributors — the ‘off brands’ selling 10 liter bottles in corner shops and supermarkets as well as the neighborhood distributors who fill 18.9 liter jugs for $1 (see “A dangerous source“).
According to the most recent statistics — which of course are laughably outdated — these distributors were the most common source of drinking water for the largest number of Lebanese. While Abou Faour in late November vowed to crack down on these distributors, in reality he did nothing. Admittedly, we do not know if these gray market entrepreneurs are selling unsafe water, but there should be a system in place to monitor and organize them.
Law 210 of 2012 does this. It outlines the exact quality standards this drinking water should meet and details the sanitation standards required for the facilities in which this water is treated, stored and distributed. But because the law does not specifically say who is responsible for monitoring and implementing these standards, it is not being enforced. We don’t know for sure where these distributors get their water; we don’t know whether they store and bottle it in sanitary conditions; and we don’t know how well it has been treated before being sold. What we do know is that such a system can easily lead to public health problems. Every citizen has the right to safe drinking water, and it is clear that the state cannot yet provide that. Until it can, the very least it can do is consistently monitor this gray market so that people can drink with confidence.
Extralegal water distribution is reflective of the wider problems with Lebanon’s food and beverage sectors. Whether it is rotten meat, expired potato chips, counterfeit booze or fruits and vegetables with alarming amounts of pesticides, we know we have a serious monitoring problem. The best way to deal with all of these tainted products is to regularly and rigorously enforce health and safety standards. Launching brief campaigns every few years for unclear purposes is not helpful.
Haphazard monitoring and enforcement will generate media attention and make a politician look good. It won’t ensure health and safety standards for food and beverages are consistently applied. That is, it won’t protect the public. Only regular and robust inspections can do that.