The slew of food safety incidents that have hit the national news ealier this month, following the discovery of tons of rotting meat in a Sabra factory, do not constitute a new “crisis” — rather, they are the revelation of a reality that has long been present. The spike in public awareness, and consequent flurry of government activity, has simply made salient some uncomfortable truths that have long been with us.
Even in the most advanced societies, food safety is one of the most complex and challenging policy issues facing government. Just last year nearly 50 people died in France and Germany after contaminated seeds from Egypt ostensibly caused an outbreak of E. Coli bacteria. That was a crisis. And that the combined policy framework of both countries’ food safety authorities, and that of the European Union, were unable to contain the outbreak before it turned lethal is a wake up call we should heed.
Many may wonder why similar incidents haven not emerge in Lebanon, given that our policy framework is written based on the demands of sectarian staffing quotas rather than public health. Some have, tongue-in-cheek, alluded to the inherent Lebanese ‘tolerance’ to contamination. In reality, luck coupled with a lack of transparency and awareness, are what have allowed us to ignore the issue for so long.
Food safety policy can be either reactive or active — but Lebanon’s is neither. Reactive food safety entails tracking a case of contamination from an ill patient to the source, and requires an intricate investigation of the patient’s food consumption, tracking down each source of possible contamination, having the authority to confiscate and test samples, and establishing viable evidence to persecute violators. In Lebanon what happens, more often than not, is that the patient is tended to, the government and hospitals circumvent the lengthy and expensive process of investigation, the issue is ignored and the extent of the problem is covered up.
Active food safety policy, on the other hand, requires ensuring that local production and imports are up to scratch by conducting snap inspections, covert investigations, treating irrigation water, conducting awareness programs and cracking down on violators. In Lebanon, however, limited authority, resources and overlapping purviews hobble inspections by health ministry and consumer protection agency officials.
Food safety policy must be adopted ‘farm to fork’, but there is currently no single authority to oversee such an approach. The agriculture ministry is responsible for testing farming practices (such as the widespread use of wastewater for irrigation) and conducting inspections at import entry points, in conjunction with the ministry of economy and trade and the health ministry. The health ministry compiles statistics and coordinates with the interior ministry, which, in theory, raids warehouses containing contaminated products. The Ministry of Energy and Water is supposed to see to it that contaminated water does not reach farmers, while the ministry of transport should oversee transportation storage. And, in the end, the finance ministry has to agree pay for everything, whether there is a budget or not.
Of course, none of these ministries are eager to give up their authority to a centralized food safety authority, which was first proposed in a draft law years ago, but has spent most of time since collecting dust on parliamentary shelves. The last time it was discussed at the cabinet table was in 2011 — the agriculture minister objected to it and, after a public outcry, struck a deal with the prime minister that any new food safety law would not dilute his authority.
To his credit, the agriculture minister has been one of the most proactive players regarding food safety. But the agriculture ministry has for decades been under the purview of either Hezbollah or Amal, both of whom rely on their constituency of southern farmers for political support and to hold territory along the border from which to resist Israel when war comes calling. Thus, diluting the ministry’s authority is tantamount to compromising national security in the minds of the South’s political patrons. But political calculations should not trump public health.
Any new food safety authority would need the support and cooperation of the agriculture ministry to be effective. But before reaching that step, a new food safety law needs to be passed by parliament and the cabinet needs to find and appoint five qualified board members from different sects. What real prerogatives the authority would eventually have would be the differentiating factor between reform that actually works or just another toothless government body.
For a country the prides itself on its food, Lebanon has been extremely lucky that its lax food safety has not caused more ill —the needed reforms should happen before the first deadly portions are served at the dinner table.
First published in Executive, March 20 online edition