Lost in hysteria: the un-reported facts of Lebanon’s food scandal
The following column was first published in the December issue of Bold Magazine.
By Habib Battah
Who could have imagined that several restaurants in Lebanon would be begging Health Ministry inspectors to revisit their establishments? Such was the case after the ministry publicly listed their unsanitary practices and the restaurants were eager to show they had improved following the latest food scandal to rock Lebanon.
The actions of Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, which include the listing and closure of major slaughterhouses, were relayed–if not parroted–with morbid and sometimes obscene headlines in the press such as The Daily Star’s “Food Scandal: Menu of Death” and Al Akhbar’s “Lebanese Consumers Learn They Are Eating Shit.” Clearly this type of hysterical coverage threw business into havoc, virtually emptying dining rooms of blacklisted restaurants overnight. And why not? Shouldn’t restaurant owners be appealing to health inspectors, shouldn’t they be cowering before the law instead of the other way around– as is often the case in Lebanon– when bureaucrats appeal to business owners with slaps on the wrists or begging for bribes?
Considering this history of public sector mismanagement, shouldn’t consumers also be questioning the actions of government workers in addition to those in the private sector? Citizens also have a right to ask how long this crackdown will last. How long will businesses fear the government inspectors and how long will the government enforce its latest safety mandate?
The media has republished long lists of violators produced by the health ministry. Most entries are vague only listing the type of food affected and not the severity of the violation. Dozens of establishments have already been shut down, including Beirut’s primary slaughterhouse. “This is not an outburst,” Abou Faour told journalists during a recent press conference. “This is a permanent policy.”
But what exactly is that policy? Did anyone bother to ask?
Of course Abu Faour isn’t the first Lebanese politician to have vowed with gusto to enforce change, nor will he be the last. Over recent decades, various ministers have enacted new laws, backed by a litany of promises and proclamations. These range from the reasonable: enforcing seat belts, speed limits, banning talking on cellphones while driving– to such absurdities as banning of all motorcycles at night, reportedly because a minister was angered by motorcycles that interrupted his motorcade.
Nonetheless, the above measures were strictly enforced with police checkpoints and the public was scared into submission, much as restaurant owners are eager to comply today. Yet all of these aforementioned laws were only policed for a few months and today, law enforcement could care less if you talk on your cell phone, speed or wear a seatbelt. And predictably, the roads, like many sectors in Lebanon, are as chaotic as ever.
Even health minister’s Abu Faour own predecessor had made his share of promises. Some 11 years ago, there was another food scandal and then-Health Minister Marwan Hamade–who belongs to the same political party as Abou Faour–announced that violators of the law would not be excused. At the time, several Lebanese agricultural exports had been rejected in Europe because they did not meet health standards and minister Hamade vowed that new health laws would be passed “within six months” and that the first ever food safety board would be created, with systems such as HACCP to be implemented in Lebanon’s food production industry.
Speaking at a UN conference on January 26, 2004, minister Hamade declared the date as the first annual “Food Safety Day,” which would be accompanied by media coverage and awareness events, he said.
“Food Safety Day is not just about one day, it is about 365 days of food safety on the national agenda,” said minister Hamade. Backing up this claim, a UN representative at the conference added that some 750 local food service workers and government inspectors had been trained on “hygienic processes and modern food inspection techniques,” according to a piece that appeared in the Daily Star at the time.
So what happened to all those inspectors and where have they been for the last decade? While the ministry is naming culprits in the private sector, what managers and programs within the health ministry have failed since those enthusiastic days in early 2004 leading to today’s rampant violations? And why? Without understanding what went wrong back then, how can citizens today be assured that some of those same problems won’t be repeated and this latest push full of promises is nothing more than rhetoric?
Some may argue that one major difference today is that several food businesses and slaughterhouses have been shut down, including the main meat processing facility of Beirut. But how long will these closures last? Will anyone be fired or fined? And what will happen in the short term, i.e. where will meat be butchered? Is the minister expecting Lebanese to pause their meat consumption?
Unfortunately many in the media were too busy parroting Abu Faour’s press conference antics and soundbites to answer such questions by doing their own investigations. For example, while many celebrated the closure of the official slaughterhouse, that move may have also spawned a proliferation of illegal meat processing sites. Environmental engineer Ziad Abi Chaker, who heads a major recycling firm, posted pictures on Facebook of cow carcases being dumped into rivers. “Of course they have no means of recycling these wastes, so they ended up in the Beirut river,” Abi Chaker wrote of the illegal slaughterhouses. Meanwhile popular blogger Mustapha Hamoui asked if corruption could have played a role:
“It shouldn’t be treasonous to doubt the incentives of underpaid government workers who are suddenly given tremendous powers to destroy businesses,” Hamoui wrote on his blog Beirut Spring. “What if Crepaway bribed the inspector to destroy its competitor Roadster Diner? What if Refaat el Hallab made him an offer he can’t refuse to smear its arch-enemy Abdul Rahman?”
While papers such as The Daily Star and others ran in-depth pieces on the horrid conditions of the slaughterhouse, few ever asked or named which officials were running the facility. Al Akhbar came closest to an investigation when it revealed that that Beirut’s Municipality was responsible and that rehabilitation plans had been shelved for the last four years. Yet quoting unnamed government sources, the paper summarized the problem as “sectarian”, noting that “Christian members (of the municipal council) are opposed to both repairing and rehabilitating it.”
But the article also states that council members representing the area may have opposed redevelopment of the slaughterhouse simply because it is a nuisance to their resident constituents and hurts future businesses. Why then would Al Akhbar manipulate a common land dispute into a “sectarian problem”, merely because the council representatives of that area were Christian? Instead of helping its readers understand the problem, the paper was actually fomenting new stereotypes via sloppy, unsourced reporting.
In fact, the meat industry provides an excellent opportunity for good journalism. One of the earliest investigative journalists– known at the time as “muckrakers”– was Upton Sinclair who published the novel “The Jungle” in 1906 based on several weeks of undercover reporting at a Chicago meatpacking plant. With its in-depth coverage of hellish sanitary and working conditions at the plant, the book is credited with helping pressure government to pass the Food and Drug Act of 1906 just months after the book was published. This law would eventually pave the way for the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration.
Just like the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Lebanon provides a fertile ground for vital reporting in an environment where businesses and politicians act free from regulation or transparency requirements. But such journalism will only empower the public if it takes itself seriously and accepts no presentation or accusation at face value, without questions, particularly when the source of that information is a member of government.