Lebanon food safety scandal: Bacteria found in chicken worse than salmonella

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A market in the southern Lebanese city of Saida in March 2011. Al-Akhbar / Hassan Bahsoun

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Monday, November 24, 2014

Work does not stop even during holidays. The responsibility is great and food contamination has become a major concern for the Lebanese. The technicians are working in various parts of the lab, wasting no time. The number of samples arriving each day is already above what the lab is capable of handling, which means their work cannot stop for an instant.

The labs of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) are a hive of activity these days. LARI’s refrigerators are stacked with thousands of samples awaiting analysis.

The lab technicians and supervisors have known for a long time the extent of food fraud endemic to the country. It is nothing new to them. Only we, ordinary citizens, have been shocked by the scandal. LARI Director-General Michel Afram says, “We have been announcing these results annually in a report sent to all ministers and MPs, but they have never received this much attention because there had been no political backing.”

Afram told Al-Akhbar that tests on new samples taken from chicken sold in the market came back positive for the presence of the bacterium campylobacter.

This dangerous type of bacteria is often found in farms and causes symptoms similar to a salmonella infection, but a campylobacter infection is worse. Campylobacteriosis can lead to long-term consequences such as diseases that affect the brain and nervous systems, including in children, as well as blood infections, diarrhea, and gum diseases.

The Health and Agriculture ministries will soon announce the presence of these bacteria and the mechanism to control them. According to Afram, the two ministries have started a thorough survey of all poultry farms to begin eradication efforts at the source, pursuant to the strategy put in place by Health Minister Wael Abu Faour recently.

Campylobacter bacteria can be transmitted in several ways, including by consuming undercooked chicken or if contaminated chicken is mixed with other foods. Campylobacter can thrive in poultry without producing signs or symptoms, making it more dangerous. The chicken’s gizzard and liver are the parts that usually have the highest count of this bacterium.

Symptoms of campylobacteriosis start to appear on infected individuals five to seven days after the infection. The bacterium can be spread from animals to humans not only through the consumption of their meats, but also by handling the feces of infected animals such as cats and dogs.

A very small amount of this bacterium (fewer than 500 cells) is enough to infect a human. This means that a small quantity of raw chicken fluids would do the job. In other words, the most common way for campylobacter to spread to humans would be, for example, to use the same place or utensils used to cut raw chicken for preparing vegetables or other uncooked or undercooked ingredients. The infection spreads between chickens through drinking water, and can spread from intestines to other meat parts after the animal is slaughtered. The bacterium can also contaminate unpasteurized milk if a cow picks up the infection through its udders, or if milk becomes contaminated with fertilizer.

Afram stressed that the crackdown on spoiled food will continue and expand, and will soon tackle coffee products, saying the Lebanese may soon discover that many of them do not conform to specifications. Afram also revealed that another investigation was initiated a few days ago into antibiotics and hormones, analyses of which started on Friday. The LARI director-general said, “There are antibiotics being administered to animals to reduce the likelihood of infections, and hormones to accelerate their growth. If these antibiotics and hormones remain in the food, they can be harmful to human health.”

LARI’s work is not limited to examining samples sent by ministries. Part of its work is also to inspect imported and exported goods, and herein lies an even bigger scandal.

Goods to be exported from Lebanon to Europe undergo laboratory analysis at LARI, the only authority whose health certifications are accepted in Europe. Afram said, “If the results come back as non-compliant, this means that they are not fit for export… But there is no law that prohibits them from being consumed locally, and the dealers subsequently divert them to the Lebanese market.” In other words, what Europeans refuse to eat is given to Lebanese citizens to consume.

Concerning imports, Afram said, “Everything that comes into Lebanon legally undergoes all tests, and would not be admitted if it did not conform.” However, he continues, even compliant goods if mishandled or stored in contaminated warehouses will be spoiled. Furthermore, non-compliant goods can enter the country illegally and make their way into the market.

Afram divides imported meats into two categories: Chilled meats that have a shelf life of 60 days, after which they must be destroyed; and frozen meats, which have a shelf life of 6 months. The problem, Afram continues, “is that when chilled meats go past the 60-day period, dealers freeze them, which is a mistake because they are now spoiled.”

In response to people questioning the results, Afram says, “Any sample that comes back negative [i.e. bad] automatically undergoes a second test for verification.” Then answering a question about why the laboratories of the American University of Beirut (AUB) were used in some tests, he points out that his lab had received 1,100 samples in one day that time, which he says was a huge amount, and 100 samples only were subsequently sent to AUB.

LARI is not an obscure authority anymore. It is now one of the most famous agencies of the Lebanese state, second to none save for the Ministry of Health. Through its efforts in food safety, this ministry has opened the door to the ‘desired’ state that the Lebanese aspire to.

This could be one of the positive aspects of Abu Faour’s drive to promote food safety and hit food fraud. In other words, a new equation might be emerging, if this campaign continues, an equation that says a state is viable in Lebanon, that the private sector is more corrupt than the public sector, and that there are official institutions in existence, which, if allowed to operate, can serve the interests of the citizens.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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