Food safety in Lebanon requires reforms, less alarmism


Food safety in Lebanon requires reforms, less alarmism
Nov. 13, 2014 |
Kareem Shaheen/The Daily Star

 BEIRUT: Scientists and health experts had mixed reactions Wednesday to the announcement that dozens of Lebanese restaurants and food outlets were selling contaminated meat, with some warning that children, the elderly and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning. But others cautioned that the Health Ministry ought to reveal more details of their inspections of restaurants and supermarkets to clarify how dangerous the food safety situation really is, pointing out that Lebanon does not have particularly high levels of food-borne illnesses.

 “I would like to hear specifics,” said Alexander Abdelnour, the chairperson of the department of experimental pathology, microbiology and immunology at the American University of Beirut, who specializes in food microbiology.
Health Minister Wael Abu Faour Tuesday listed popular restaurant chains and supermarkets around Lebanon that were discovered to be selling food, especially meat and poultry, that failed to meet basic food safety standards, posing a potentially deadly risk to citizens. He pledged to reveal the list of offending outlets in Beirut Thursday.

 “He may be right, but we need details,” Abdelnour said. “Who tested them? How did they test them? How did they collect the samples? I would like to know these details before I make any comments [on health effects].”
Abdelnour said that one aspect that would need to be clarified, for instance, is the level of bacteria like E Coli or salmonella in the samples. Salmonella can be found in low quantities in poultry and the amount of E Coli has to be at a certain level before concluding that the food is contaminated with fecal matter.

 He said that AUB was not involved in the testing, but pointed out that the AUB Medical Center had not seen unusual levels of food poisoning cases in recent times. The university is involved in a project with the World Health Organization to analyze the genetic code of strains of salmonella obtained from patients who suffer food-related diarrhea, and did not detect unusual trends there.
“The number of specimens we got from all over the country were minimal,” he said. “They occur in practically all other countries.”
“I think in general it’s a sort of exaggeration as to the seriousness of these food-borne pathogens,” he added. “We’ve all been eating Hawa Chicken and we’ve all been going to these restaurants and buying things from these supermarkets.”

 Carla Mourad, a nutrition and food science lecturer at AUB, who runs a Beirut-based health-eatery, said food poisoning is a risk as a result of contamination by fecal matter and sewage. “Food poisoning is not a joke and can lead to death,” she said. “A simple infection can deteriorate.”
Mourad said the elderly, young children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable due to their weak immune systems. But she said the results did not surprise her, saying the lack of oversight in Lebanon’s food industry has been a persistent problem that can probably only be cured through fines and scandals.

 Mourad downplayed the impact of the regular electricity outages on the food industry. “Of course the electricity problem is not helping the Lebanese food service, but we can work around it,” she said. Many businesses use generators to provide electricity during the daily outages.
Nicole Maftoum, a clinical dietician, agreed that the problem of food safety was not a new one, but said the government is mostly interested in creating an atmosphere of fear without finding fundamental solutions to the food safety problem.
“I believe that we have become acculturated to a system that breaks the silence of one of our greatest pleasures in this country: eating; creating fearful and outrage[d] reactions,” she said. “I simply wish our government could put an end to all this chaos and establish proper guidelines to be well implemented and respected in each food-related organization.”

 Lebanon has few food testing facilities. One major food laboratory in Ain al-Tineh was closed down back in 2007 because it was too close to Speaker Nabih Berri’s home.
Mourad said the results would likely also be dire for produce since many farmers use sewage water to irrigate crops. “If you want my answer, I never eat tabbouleh outside my house – I am 100 percent sure they will not wash the parsley,” she said when asked if similar tests on produce are likely to yield the same results.

 Maftoum said all consumers should develop an awareness that allows them to detect spoiled food, and said she generally advises them to follow a “flexible vegetarian” diet that has occasional red meat and poultry, and focuses on natural foods, grains and seafood.
Mourad said consumers should not generalize the findings to all food outlets. “It’s not general to each and every producer or food provider or supermarket,” she said.

 Consumers ought to buy meat and poultry from trustworthy providers, promptly freeze them, and cook them thoroughly to fight off germs.
“When in 1 percent doubt, throw the food,” she added