Food safety has become a national spectacle over the past several months. While there have been no recent foodborne epidemics, Health Minister Wael Abou Faour has incessantly reminded us that much of what we eat “violates health standards.” Yet despite this cringeworthy thought, it is refreshing to see the minister taking food safety so seriously — notwithstanding our nagging suspicions about his true motives for waging this campaign and disappointment over his lack of hard numbers to reinforce how serious the risks we face are. Abou Faour has repeatedly pledged not to let food safety fall off the radar when he leaves office, but we need much more than a pledge. We need serious institutional reform.
[pullquote]We need much more than a pledge. We need serious institutional reform[/pullquote]
For far too long, Lebanon’s elected officials have known there are serious problems with the current system for ensuring that what we eat is safe and clean. That said, Abou Faour is the first minister of public health to name, shame and promise change in over a decade. His efforts are laudable, but the problem is overlapping authority — the ministries of agriculture, public health, tourism, economy and industry, as well as each of the country’s six governors all play a role in monitoring food safety, not to mention the municipalities. When multiple government agencies have responsibilities for something, it is all too easy for everyone to do nothing but blame each other if and when an epidemic happens.
In recent years, intermittent reports of warehouses full of expired meat or potato chips have surfaced time and again. Last year, Executive reported that farmers facing a water crisis were diverting wastewater to be used for irrigation. There is no legitimate reason why negligent food handling has continued for so long. We understand that business owners on any link of the food chain might try sneaking expired products into the market rather than counting them as losses, but this is absolutely unacceptable.
Today, according to the director general of the ministry of health, there are only 70 health inspectors working for the ministry, which is underfunded and understaffed. If, as the director general claims, other ministries are not doing their jobs properly vis-à-vis food safety, the chances that this crusade will end with Abou Faour’s term are far too high for us to be comfortable relying only on a pledge that Wael’s war will outlast him. We need institutional change and concentrated authority. We need a new law, and a draft approved in January 2015 by parliament’s joint committees seems like the best start.
[pullquote]The chances that this crusade will end with Abou Faour’s term are far too high[/pullquote]
Chapter three of the draft calls for the creation of a centralized body, the Lebanese Food Safety Commission, that would have full control of food safety from inspecting imported food before it is distributed, to visiting farms and slaughterhouses to make sure best practices are being implemented. This is a good idea provided the commission is fully staffed with enough inspectors to routinely conduct randomized safety checks throughout the country. While article 30 of the draft delineates 21 tasks the commission will be responsible for — such as overseeing the ‘traceability’ process, i.e. tracking food through all stages of production to analyze any potential risks — the exact details will come in future bylaws.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri reportedly wants to convene a legislative session in mid April, and this draft should be on the agenda and given an up or down vote. On top of that, the cabinet must swiftly pass any necessary implementing decrees to ensure the food safety commission is created quickly, given proper authority and fully funded. The unfortunately common practice of reforms being stillborn because the cabinet fails to follow up with the necessary implementing decrees cannot be allowed to happen in this case. Food safety is a must, and the only way to avoid more scandals in the future is to properly monitor and regulate the sector. Ensuring safety is a day-in and day-out job, not something that will happen when someone raises a stink every few years. Better to turn the current spectacle into something productive, lest we have a true food safety issue in the future.