Food Fraud Scandal Persists: Contaminated Sugar in Lebanese Markets

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Health Minister Wael Abu Faour scanning equipment at the Beirut Airport on December 23, 2014. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Thursday, January 29, 2015

New shipments of contaminated sugar enter the country every month. It is thought that up to 26 percent of sugar consumed in Lebanon each year (150,000 tons) may be unfit for consumption. Meanwhile, a shipment of contaminated sugar weighing 14,600 tons is being held at the port of Tripoli.

Sources indicate that the dispute between the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Health regarding an older shipment of rotten sugar has been settled in favor of the former. The 1,083 tons of expired sugar that remain from a 25,400 ton shipment that entered the port of Tripoli on April 7, 2013, will be released onto the market after the Minister of Health Wael Abu Faour gave his approval, provided that the sugar is reexamined at the processing facility before being cleared for sale.

But in a country where each day brings new reports about contaminated foods and imported materials, how exactly will the authorities track 1,083 tons of sugar after it leaves the port? It’s fair to say that this is close to impossible.

In other words, 1,083 tons of contaminated sugar will enter the market with the consent of the government. This episode is but a sample of the kind of pressure to which Minister Abu Faour is subjected to.

Last week, the minister said that four businessmen were arrested on charges of food fraud. Abu Faour told Al-Akhbar that one of the four men is Raif Qasim, one of Lebanon’s most prominent sugar tycoons.

He was arrested in connection with the contaminated sugar confiscated at the port of Tripoli. But, Abu Faour said, the man was released shortly after his arrest.

Abu Faour has a lot of criticism for the court system. On Wednesday, he remarked that no reform is possible unless those responsible are jailed and tried.

Another merchant from the Ajami family was also arrested, as Abu Faour told Al-Akhbar.

Raif Qasim, however, refuses to talk about rotten sugar. He claims that sugar cannot spoil, that it has no expiry date, and should only require a label stating the date of production. Qasim said he recovered 500 tons of sugar from the port of Tripoli with the approval of the Ministry of Economy, and that another merchant had recovered 2,000 tons for local consumption, according to a Ministry of Economy statement issued on April 3, 2014. While the first sugar scandal seems to have been “settled,” another sugar scandal has now emerged. A new shipment of sugar entered the port of Tripoli, containing 14,600 of refined sugar, ostensibly set to expire in 2017.

Officially, it complies with the standards that would allow it to be cleared to enter the local market. However, the inspection carried out by Ministry of Health inspectors revealed that the sugar was contaminated with yeast and fungi at a rate of 200 m/25 grams, bearing in mind that the permissible rate is 10 m/25 grams according to Abu Faour.

Minister Abu Faour asked the ministers of economy and finance not to clear the sugar to be released from the port. The inspectors took a second sample to verify the result, which confirmed the presence of high levels of yeasts and fungi.

Results from a third sample will return on Monday, and decide the fate of the sugar shipment.

The inspection of the storage place holding the sugar shipment produced results similar to those seen after the inspection of the grain silos at the port of Beirut. Abu Faour said that Warehouse 2, run by Louis Dreyfus, contains refined sugar (meant for consumption), which is not kept in isolation from the elements, including pigeons who can “fly” inside. Further, he said, it contains quantities of rotten sugar, while the floor of the warehouse is contaminated, and sugar is packed in non-compliant packaging.

The minister has sent a letter to the Tripoli port authority asking it to improve the storage conditions and hold the goods, pending the results from the samples.

At this time, it is unclear whether the sugar has left the port and no one knows what happened to the first shipment. Also, no one knows whether the economic minister Alain Hakim will use his influence to allow this contaminated sugar into the country, in plain sight of everyone.

These two episodes alone involve 40,000 tons of the 150,000 tons of sugar consumed by the Lebanese annually. This means that at least 26 percent of sugar consumed here is suspect. So the big question is: How much rotten sugar are the Lebanese actually consuming?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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