By Aseel Baidoun
LAU Tribune staff
Marian Hanna was taken to a hospital by her roommate after she ate a chicken-and-cheese sandwich from a well-known Lebanese restaurant. Her severe stomach ache and vomiting turned out to be symptoms of food poisoning.
Hanna is among the thousands who fall victims of spoiled food in Lebanon on annual basis.
The country endured a shocking revelation after the Consumer Protection Department revealed that tons of edible substances, which are being sold in the Lebanese market, are spoiled.
And while Hanna suffered from immediate preliminary symptoms, other consumers of rotten food sometimes fall ill after two to four weeks of their consumption of spoiled products.
President of the Lebanese Association for Food Safety, Dr. Zeina Kassaify, says that thousands of Lebanese and foreigners fall ill from food poisoning every year in Lebanon but very few notify parties concerned with health care, including the Consumer Protection Department.
One reason for that is the fact that, in most of the cases, victims cannot be certain as to when and where they caught the poisoning bacteria from food.
But the major reason for the victims’ apparent unwillingness to act after getting poisoned is the general public’s confusion over the official references which they should contact, according to Dr. Kassaify.
“Victims simply have no idea where or how to complain,” Dr. Kassaify said.
“The process is a messy legal jungle, requiring hours of wasted precious time between the offices of the Ministry of the Economy, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture. And the burden of proof often falls on the victim,” Dr. Kassaify continued.
While the Minister of Agriculture Hussein Hajj Hassan says that only three percent of the country’s edible items are spoiled, unsafe products include chewing gum, potato chips and coffee to the staples of meat, chicken and fish, cheese and children’s milk.
The Natour brothers, Suleiman and Samih, were charged for processing and selling spoiled meat and other edible items, and for the attempted murders of the customers to whom they knowingly sold expired food.
Twenty-two tons of frozen meat – imported from the likes of Brazil, Australia and New Zealand – were confiscated by police from the warehouse of Natour’s food company, the International Company for Meat and Food Trade.
The public’s panic over food safety has seen sales of edible products by tens of local companies diminish.
But some have been critical about the whole issue, sighting a conspiracy –perhaps driven by political motives.
Dr. Kassaify said that many Lebanese restaurants have been cutting down their expenses by purchasing raw food of questionable quality for years now.
“All businessmen in food industry acknowledge that the Sabra market is the worst, and Natour is famous with his spoiled food. For this reason, we should all wonder why the scandal happened now,” Hasan Bayoun, the owner of Bayoun corporations, said.
Fearing food poisoning, some people eat exclusively at expensive restaurants, believing that such places are cleaner and more reliable than smaller restaurants.
But they are “driven by the perception that more expensive must be cleaner and safer” according to Dr. Kassaify. The Lebanese Association for Food Safety provides sufficient laboratory evidence indicating that food from top local restaurants does not comply with the international standards for food safety.
A list of restaurants, coffee shops and supermarkets which allegedly sell spoiled products was circulated. The Ministry of Agriculture, however, has denied the validity of the list –insisting that the distributed information was fabricated.
After a Kalam Ennas episode on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, where the issue was first tackled in a bold manner, the public pressured the ministry to disclose the names of the restaurants it had inspected for their noncompliance with standards of cleanliness and food safety.
But a law bans the ministry and the Consumer Protection Department – or any other side – from naming the restaurants. “Luckily for the industry, the law bans the publishing of such evidence or the naming of names, reinforcing a culture of irresponsibility, impunity and lack of accountability for the health, safety and well-being of consumers,” Dr. Kassaify said.
Not much information has been allowed to flow in the media, despite some media appearances for the Head of the Consumer Protection Department Fouad Fleifel.
Fleifel refused to share any information with the Tribune about the spoiled food scandal, insisting that services are only provided to “victims of food poisoning” and that the department is “responsible for investigating their case and inspecting responsible restaurants.”
According to the National News Agency (NNA), Hajj Hassan has added a stipulation for meat importers, demanding the compilation of a list with the sides to whom the meat will be distributed.
The report adds that, while Hajj Hassan has tightened food security measures at the airport and seaport, he remains worried about the goods which are left to expire in depositories.
The police has discovered more than 200 tons of spoiled meet and chicken products in the past weeks, and charged many other distributors of jeopardizing public safety.
Some companies insist they have not been troubled by the scandal. Sami Meraab, Purchasing director of Khoury Dairy, says that the scandal has somehow benefited his company.
“The rate of our sales had increased, because of the consumers’ trust in the quality of our products,” Meraab said.
The discoveries of expired food have left their mark on the hospitality and food exhibition Horeca at BIEL late last month, as exhibitors admitted that their businesses have incurred massive losses since the reports of such incidents first emerged.
“We have lost 50 percent of the sales in the market, due to consumers fear of buying dairy products,” Mohammad Al Husayn, the owner of Nadec, a dairy product company, said.