Lebanon: Ruling elite rejects food safety regulations for ‘huge profits’

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An open-air food market in the southern Lebanese city of Saida. Al-Akhbar/Hassan Bahsoun

Published Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Attempts aimed at regulating the food industry in Lebanon have proven to be an “utter failure.” The food safety draft law, which is supposed to regulate all food sectors in the country (food industry, imports, storage, transportation, shops, and restaurants), has been sitting in the drawers of parliament since 1995, “with most political blocs opposing it” in order to preserve [their] “huge financial interests,” according to Zouheir Berro, chairman of Consumers Lebanon.

The draft law bans the import of foodstuffs nearing their expiry date and calls for monitoring and destroying all spoiled goods, denying traders the ability to reap “huge profits.”

“We are talking about stripping traders from a third of their profits in a sector estimated to be worth between $7 and $9 billion a year if it is regulated,” said Berro.

He further noted that since the enactment of the Consumer Protection Law in 2005, no application decrees have ever been issued in Lebanon, except for one that controls and monitors the work of consumer protection associations.

In a glaring contradiction, the chairman said the state is seeking to control such associations while “allowing the market to be open and without any surveillance,” leaving it vulnerable to goods with suspicious ingredients that may pose health hazards. These include GMOs or expired foods, food colorants, and preservatives.

Berro, however, said that “surveillance is only the last part of the process,” and called for comprehensive laws and mechanisms that will regulate imports, manufacturing, refrigeration, storage, and sale of goods, leaving the examination of foodstuffs in the market to be the last step in an “integral chain.”

The head of Consumers Lebanon warned that the number of cancer cases has increased in Lebanon from 7,000 in 2007 to 10,000 in 2011, arguing that this is the result of declining food quality, pollution, and lifestyle changes.

He further stated that the situation in the country reflected a general picture in the Middle East, a region with the highest prevalence of noncommunicable diseases in the world (cancers, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc.), accounting for over half of the world’s noncommunicable diseases, and had 50 percent of the people needing urgent medical services (along with the largest number of refugees).

He further stated that countries in the region that were not suffering from war, displacement, and a collapse of medical infrastructure, lack “the political will to meet the health requirements of the people,” and this applies particularly to rich countries in the region.

His conclusion echoes and summarizes the debate over the annual World Health Organization (WHO) Eastern Mediterranean Region report, which was presented in a conference held Tunisia last month and attended by Berro.

“There is money, corruption, and regimes that impose their authority, but there is no modern notion of state duties,” he said. Hence, Berro argued, these regimes refrain from providing essential public services, which leads to a lack of “health policies in most countries in the region.”

He noted that very few countries in the region have adopted food safety laws, and even if these laws exist, they are applied in a selective, non-effective manner, or are sometimes not implemented at all. It all depends on the interests of the ruling elite.

Whenever an accomplishment is made, it usually comes with a high price, and suits the interest of the ruling families and people in their inner-circles, he added.

Berro noted that the conference in Tunisia concluded that the main problem hindering the establishment of health regulations and universal health coverage in the region is not a lack of funding, rather it is the lack of a political will.

He quoted a representative from a Gulf state (that has not built a comprehensive health system) as saying during the conference that there is no lack of funding.

“If a fund needs 10, we give it 100 (units of money),” Berro recounted the representative as saying.

A WHO official further elaborated during the conference that the problem wa not financial, referring to the Nigerian experience, in which the country was able to declare during the conference it was Ebola-free despite its weak financial capacities.

This is attributed to goodwill and good management at a low cost, Berro declared.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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