Home Economics & PolicyAnalysis Falling food safety standards have left a population sick

Falling food safety standards have left a population sick

by Rouba Bou Khzam

Access to sufficient quantities of safe and nutritious food is a basic right, yet in Lebanon, such access can no longer be guaranteed. The three-year old economic crisis, which quickly expanded into a socio-economic crisis, has radically changed the lives of citizens up and down the country. Priorities have switched: how does a mother choose whether to buy meat for her children or sanitary pads for herself? Filling the car with gasoline, or buying medicine? Such ever-present dilemmas have forced many to resort to purchasing cheaper items, which is leading to a higher risk to consumer health and safety. 

In Lebanon, slipping food safety standards is a by-product from a range of external deteriorations: widespread electricity shortages, depreciation of the Lebanese pound, the dwindling state subsidy, and so on. As food inflation has reached among the highest in the world, consumers have turned to cheaper items where safety standards cannot be guaranteed. The electricity blackouts have posed a major challenge for shop owners and restaurateurs, who have been forced to chuck out huge quantities of spoiled meat and dairy produce, together losing revenues and customers. 

 Lebanon’s reliance on imports for 80 percent of its foodstuffs has been exposed during the last three years of economic downturn. The dependence has been to the detriment of the population, as US dollar shortages left the government scrambling to subsidize wheat, grains, oils, and other food items deemed essential. It forced a change in the food market and lower quality products have filled the shelves of shops. 

Food Quality and Safety Standards 

 Agro-food engineer and food safety specialist, Sabine Chahine, tells Executive that a high-quality product conforms to local or international standards which take into account aspects such as: product components, nutritional content, prohibited and permitted substances and their percentage, external shape, color, taste, thickness, acidity, and pollutants. 

 She defines food safety as food free from contamination risks which might lead to food poisoning, a malady many of Lebanon’s residents will have found themselves familiar with over the past twelve months. Possible risks range from biological (germs), chemical (sediments, agricultural pesticides, and antibiotics), physical (hair), allergic risks (wheat), and food-borne diseases, which are especially dangerous to people with compromised immunity, like the elderly or the very young, pregnant people, those chronically ill, or those undergoing chemotherapy treatment. 

Absent Checks 

The economic crisis has led to long-term repercussions and successive crises across sectors. One of the more tangible aspects has been the rise in cases of food poisoning, a direct consequence of the breaking down of basic services like electricity and water. Daily blackouts mean food in fridges and freezers cannot be kept at required temperatures, which has caused a surge in bacteria growth and sickness, though it is difficult to gauge the precise amount of cases aside from anecdotal evidence, as the Ministry of Public Health does not publish regular figures. 

 “Nowadays, controlling the quality and safety of products in the Lebanese market is no longer as effective as before,” Chahine says, explaining that citizens are no longer able to afford products from reputed international brands with ensured safety standards. 

 “We are witnessing an increase in cases of diarrhea that usually appear in the summer season as a result of the high temperature, but this increase is due today to the power outage that leads to the multiplication of bacteria in foods. As we know, food must be stored and preserved at temperatures below 5 degrees, especially cheese, dairy, meat, raw chicken and eggs… These foods, if they carry bacteria and are placed at normal room temperature, will lead to the proliferation of bacteria and cause food poisoning.” 

 Chahine also notes that salmonella bacteria are most commonly found in foods in Lebanon, as well as other types of bacteria spread through contaminated surfaces. “The roads are full of waste, which causes a gathering of rats, flies and mice, which carry germs with them and distribute them wherever they are,” Chahine says. 

 The economic crisis and subsequent deterioration of living standards has caused a rise in public health concerns, resulting from slacking food safety standards among the responsible government departments. Elie Bteich, chief executive officer of Byscon Consultancy, a local firm specializing in all food safety, quality, health and environment management systems, notes that an absence of proper supervision and safety checks has led to more people buying “corrupt” materials for their lower price. “The spread of spoiled meat is the result of poor preservation or the presence of bacteria in it, which is usually sold at low prices after some traders refuse to dispose of it and seek to resell it,” Bteich says. 

 Some meat and dairy items are entering Lebanon in an illegal manner, according to Bteich, and as such are averting necessary quality control checks. “[The food is] either not fit for eating or spoiled, as a result of being transported in unrefrigerated cars and in very bad conditions, or in warehouses that lack electric current and that do not meet the safety requirements,” he says. 

 Earlier this year, the Bekaa Health Department was forced to shut down four butchers after 50 residents were struck with food poisoning from eating raw meat, and subsequent testing found four separate butchers were selling contaminated meat. 

Bteich notes that among Lebanon’s dairy and cheese factories, while there are “very reliable and respectable factories,” there are also some which are “not subject to any supervision and the quality of their products cannot be ascertained.” 

Careful Consumers 

 Over the last year, many Lebanese have been discovering different ways to avoid food poisoning; buying items and cooking the same day, going vegan or simply choosing to purchase cupboard items which do not rely on refrigeration. Sabine explains that “food remains edible for four hours after a power outage, but after this period some foods spoil quickly, and they must be disposed of immediately, such as raw foods like chicken, meat and fish.” 

 She also says that consumers must be aware of the meat’s color, smell and texture. “It must not have a sticky substance on it because this means that it has begun to spoil. As for chicken, when pressing on it, there should be no traces of fingers on it.” Any animal-based products, like dairy and eggs, Chahine also advises to take similar precautions with, like buying in small quantities at a time. 

Looking at the larger picture, changing mentalities by improving education should also be included as a method to improve food safety among the population. Bteich recommends increasing consumer awareness through training seminars, or even television campaigns. However, he says that on a government level “a full plan from laws including importation, to distribution chains, storage and food handling should be implemented on all levels.” 

Measures Taken  

 The growing absence of health and safety standards among Lebanon’s food is an ongoing challenge for society and the state, and has already come at a great cost to the wellbeing of citizens, just at a time when the health sector is juggling its own shortages and financial woes. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Public Health launched an action plan for food safety, following a tumultuous previous summer of food-related sickness. Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati called the issue a “top priority” for the reputation of the industry and for the safety of citizens. The ministry’s absence of a central laboratory, which the Health Minister called “one of the most important controls for the issue of food quality and medicine,” will remain one of the major hindrances to safer standards for residents. 

Like many of Lebanon’s other sectors, the support of the international community is necessary to improve standards and services through training and education, equipment and expertise. However, unlike many other sectors, the health of the population is dependent on the quality of the food industry, and as that quality falls, so too does the wellbeing of the individual. 

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Rouba Bou Khzam

Rouba is a journalist at Executive magazine

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