Lebanon’s Food Safety Scandal Won't Go Away

The richly varied cuisine of Lebanon offers a seemingly endless parade of delights. Unfortunately, in cities from Beirut to Tripoli, such dishes often come with a totally unwanted side of gut-roiling food poisoning.

Mar 11 2015, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user sedap

The richly varied cuisine of Lebanon offers a seemingly endless parade of delights, from cold, refreshing salads such as baba ghanoush and tabbouleh to crisp, freshly fried falafel doused in nutty tahini to oozy, honeyed baklava. Unfortunately, in cities from Beirut to Tripoli, such dishes often come with a totally unwanted side of gut-roiling food poisoning.

Last November, Lebanon was rocked by a national food safety scandal after the country's Ministry of Public Health responded to a years-long increase in the incidences of foodborne illnesses by beginning a campaign of surprise inspections of restaurants, slaughterhouses, supermarkets, and farms. The results were worse than the agency expected, and it decided that a public shaming might be just the ticket to getting Lebanon's food businesses to shape up or get out of the game. That month, Minister of Public Health Wael Abou Faour held a press conference to announce the names of more than 1,000 establishments whose food samples had tested positive for a host of unappetizing additions ranging from salmonella to straight-up traces of feces and raw sewage. The list included some of Lebanon's most popular chains, such as luxury supermarkets Spinneys and TSC Mega, all the way down to its street carts and casual cafes.

"I hope we are laying the groundwork for the permanent procedures of food safety in this country," Faour said at the time.

But contaminated and expired food continues to be served in Lebanese eateries at a rate that is uncomfortable—and potentially deadly—for diners there. Last month, a labneh maker in the north of the country was shut down for failing to pass safety inspections, and on Saturday, more than 15 students at the Abi Samra Technical School in Tripoli were hospitalized after eating cheese-filled kaak, or stuffed bread. The ministry of health tested samples of the cheese filling and found that it contained the bacteria staphylococcus aureus at levels 16 times higher than the maximum allowable amount, as well as traces of E. coli, which is found in fecal matter and typically makes its way into foods when the cook doesn't wash his hands. According to Lebanon's Daily Star, all 15 students were hospitalized, two with critical illnesses. The cafeteria, as well as the bakery that provided the kaak, have since been shuttered by the government.

Ambiguity appears to be the cause of Lebanon's food safety woes. According to an article in the Middle East Eye, "there is no one defining food safety law in Lebanon, and when it comes to what is required, legally, of restaurants and supermarkets, it all gets a bit foggy."

Faced with a lack of clear rules or governmental oversight, restaurant owners say, for years they've been self-regulating their food safety practices. Restaurants equipped with the right facilities and knowledge can effectively maintain the hygiene of the food they serve, but others aren't so lucky, according to Walid Hayek, the head of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs, and Pastries in Lebanon. (Editor's note: what a title!)

"There are three kinds of restaurants in this sector," Hayek told the Middle East Eye. "Those who internally adopted food safety standards a long time ago, those with good intentions but that don't have the know-how, then those who are just bad."

In spite of the Ministry of Health's public shaming of eateries last year, policy changes on food safety in Lebanon have yet to go into effect. After a delay, a draft of a new food safety law was accepted in January by the country's parliament, but officials have yet to announce when the law might take affect. Additionally, some restaurant owners have complained that the new hygiene effort, which is being handled jointly by the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministries of Economy and Agriculture, is simply too confusing.

"It's good what they're doing but it would have been logical to have one part of the government dealing with us, not three or four agencies," Mahmud—a third-generation restaurateur who refused to give his real name—told the Middle East Eye.