Beirut Ramadan: Record Price Hikes
By: Rasha Abouzaki
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2012
In ten days, Ramadan will be over. The Lebanese are waiting for prices to go back to normal levels, while merchants are fawning over the huge profits they’ve made during the month of fasting.
The Directorate of Consumer Protection at the Ministry of Economy and Trade ensures us that it carries out inspection patrols and highlights the role it plays in curbing inflation. The consumer protection association calls out against the rising prices and Trade and Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas tries to regulate matters.
The land of chaos is also a land of contradictions, where indicators change without being noticed. Nobody shouts out loudly enough and no one heeds the complaint.
Last year, Ibtisam Haidar would spend no more than 20,000 Lebanese Lira (LL) (US$13) a day on food. Today, the same family meal for iftar costs no less than $50.
Haidar now spends LL40,000 ($27) for one kilogram of lamb and beef is LL20,000 ($13). Raw chicken costs between LL8,000 ($5) and LL10,000 ($7) a kilo, and reaches LL20,000 ($13) if roasted.
She says that an iftar spread needs to include at least one kind of meat. Added to this is the cost of Ramadan refreshments, with the price of a kilo of lemons for lemonade at around LL2,000 ($1.3). Finally, traditional Ramadan pastries might double the cost.
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Minister Nahas maintains that the prices have now dropped drastically due to the daily patrols being sent out by the Consumer Protection Directorate to the markets.
He mentions that ministerial meetings were held to put a stop to price inflation during Ramadan. Citations of violations were given to a number of merchants, which led to a reduction of around 50 percent in some cases, he says.
Executive Director of the Federation of Butchers and Cattle Merchants Maarouf Bekdash denies any increase in the price of meat. He insists that Lebanon has the cheapest meat in the region, due to the waiver of customs, port duties, and other facilities achieved by the federation.
He explains that the disparate prices between regions are due to the difference in operational costs, such as shop rental, employee salaries, and types of meat sold.
Bekdash argues that there are several reasons for high prices on fresh meats, compared to imported products. One of them is that low-priced imported meats are usually close to the expiration date. Merchants try to sell fast before they go bad.
Bekdash is surprised to see complaints about meat prices. He says that in Turkey, it costs around $23 for one kilo; in Egypt, it is $17; and in $15 in Syria. The price in Lebanon ranges between LL14,000 ($9.3) and LL18,000 ($12).
Farmers assert that the prices of some vegetables are still acceptable. But other vegetable have increased in price, and there are always greedy merchants and a lack of monitoring. He says that the fruit and vegetable market is “out of control.”
Farmers Association president Antoine Howayek points to the very high demand during Ramadan, leading to higher retail prices, while wholesale prices remain stable.
He also points out to the scarcity of Syrian vegetables and fruits due to the impact of the crisis on import and export. This caused the price of tomatoes to rise, along with several other types of produce.
According to Howayek, merchants are stockpiling potatoes and preparing them for export, leading to reduced supplies. The glaring imbalance in the market also inflates the prices for greens.
He also blames the high temperatures of this summer, reaching 45 degrees celsius in the Bekaa and causing damage to several crops. This also contributes to an evident increase in prices in the local markets, along with the scarcity of imported agricultural products.
Nevertheless, consumer advocacy group Consumers Lebanon reiterates that there have been huge increases in food prices this year, especially during Ramadan. The head of the association’s Monitoring and Food Safety Department Nada Nehme speaks about record increases in the prices of meats.
The cost of a kilo of beef rose by percent, for lamb by 10 percent. While prices of whole chickens remained stable, chicken cuts witnessed a remarkable hike: 26 percent for breast meat and 24 percent for thighs and drumsticks.
Inflation in the price of fish varied by species, but reached 6 percent in some cases. The prices of grains have not varied.
As for vegetables, the price of potatoes rose by 25 percent, carrots by 50 percent, eggplants by 24 percent, cauliflower by 30 percent, garlic by 22 percent, bell peppers by 27, radishes by 67 percent, lettuce by 41 percent, cucumbers by 50 percent, parsley by 64 percent, tomatoes by 26 percent, onions by 29 percent, and mint and purslane by 41 percent.
Nehme explains that her figures were calculated from 150 questionnaires filed by some of the main supermarkets in Lebanon to monitor for fluctuations in retail prices.
She blames the increases on monopolies and increasing demand for food items during Ramadan. But, she explains that this year, the prices of meat spiraled out of control. Even meat sellers buying from the slaughterhouse complain of a daily increase in price, in spite of the stability in international meat and cattle markets.
Nehme also indicates that the reduction of fuel prices this month has not affected prices. This means that the traders are making incredible profits on the backs of consumers, taking advantage of the lack of efficient controls.
“It is chaotic but nobody cares. The Ministry of Economy does not exist, there is just the Ministry of Trade,” Nehme says. She explains that economic policy in Lebanon is not liberal and that it is based on monopoly.
She wonders about the real reason behind the lack of any government measures to tackle the periodic inflation of prices in Lebanese markets during Ramadan.
Nehme describes the weak state of consumer protection in Lebanon. The National Consumer Protection Council is being blocked by the ministry. The Consumer Court is not on the agenda of officials. Its establishment went no further than the hiring of several employees.
She considers that barring associations from any active role in protection and impeding consumers from reaching the courts is nothing but an extension of the futile monitoring that only serves the merchants.
Rising Since the Start of the Year
Consumer prices recorded steep increases since the start of 2012.
The consumer price index prepared by the Consultation and Research Institute (CRI) shows a 3.1 percent increase in the first six months of the year, compared to the end of 2011.
Compared to the same period last year, the increase is around 4.1 percent.
Based on the index, the cost of various commodities and services rose by 8.6 percent, food products by 8.5 percent, non-alcoholic beverages by 1.9 percent, and alcoholic beverages by 1.4 percent.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.