Food Security in Lebanon: Spoiled Wheat or Spoiled State Authority?

2016-08-19    |   

Food Security in Lebanon: Spoiled Wheat or Spoiled State Authority?

In a press conference held on March 16, 2016, Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abu Faour announced that laboratory tests carried out by his ministry on samples of imported wheat to Lebanon showed high levels of Ochratoxin; a carcinogenic substance that especially affects the liver and the brain. Due to Ochratoxin’s danger to human health, the World Health Organization has set the acceptable ratio for the consumption of this substance in grains. According to the Ministry of Health, the ratio permitted globally must not exceed 5mcg per kg, whereas the non-conforming wheat samples [in the Lebanese case] reportedly exceeded 26mcg per kg. The issue was raised at the Cabinet meeting when a dispute erupted between Abu Faour and Minister of Economy Alain Hakim. The latter confirmed that the test results conducted by his ministry are correct, while Abu Faour insisted there were two shipments: one fine and one contaminated. He explained that testing of the imported wheat is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, not the Ministry of Economy. Accordingly, the Ministry of Agriculture entered the argument.

Minister Akram Chehayeb explained that the task of his ministry is only to conduct the required laboratory tests upon the arrival of the wheat shipment to the port, while the Ministry of Economy bears the responsibility of setting procedures and safety of storage. While the sparring between the three ministries continued for about one week, Lebanese citizens were waiting to see if the wheat they consume is cancerous or not. In a meeting attended by the three ministers, the minister of health confirmed that the wheat sold in the Lebanese market is indeed carcinogenic. The three ministries, along with the ministry of industry, agreed to develop an action plan to address the issue. The ministers promised a solution and announced their intention to develop an integration mechanism and control over the entire food chain from beginning to end. However, Lebanese citizens are yet to see any signs of such solutions.

Lawsuits Looking for an Answer: Is the Wheat Spoiled?

In the absence of any serious official answer to the wheat issue and due to the government’s floundering in contradictory statements, OffreJoie (Joy of Giving) Association, represented by lawyer Melhem Khalaf, along with a number of activists and lawyers have chosen to resort to the courts to get answers. A petition was submitted before the summary affairs judge in Beirut, in which the petitioners (OffreJoie Association and a number of citizens) requested the appointment of an expert to inspect the wheat storage conditions and take samples of it. Judge Jad Maalouf responded to the request by issuing two decisions to appoint a competent team of five experts to examine five main mills, take samples, and check for safety, health and hygiene standards. The lawyers also presented a review before the Shura Council to assign an expert to contact the ministries and Lebanese Customs and check the silos at Beirut and Tripoli ports and laboratories; in addition to inspecting the fate of the imported cargo of wheat which some laboratory results revealed it contained carcinogenic substances. Deputy Adviser Samih Maddah also responded to this request, noting that the plaintiff in this case was the Sweets and Candies Union in Northern Lebanon.

The experts team issued a report on the samples they got from the five mills. The experts drafted a special report on Modern Lebanon Mills, located on the river promenade, after they found out -during the first inspection- rats, insects, and leaking turbid water. Based on this report, the petitioners submitted a petition to the Consumer Protection Association in Lebanon, requesting the closure of the mill, before the Summary Affairs Court. On June 22, 2016, Judge Maalouf issued the first decision of its kind to immediately close the mill and seize the amount of wheat and flour and animal feed product therein. The decision also decreed that the mill must not be reopened before the designated expert assigned by the court issues a report showing that the mill has made all the necessary adjustments which provide quality and safety in their products. On June 23, 2016, the decision was implemented by the court clerk who inspected the mill and checked its quantities of wheat and flour. The expert team is still in the process of writing the report on wheat silos at the Beirut port.

Resorting to justice in the wheat issue is important for two reasons:

This case allowed the public to access important information that was not accessible to it prior; and

The case has paved the way for reactivating the Lebanese Association for Food Safety, provided for in the Food Safety Law.

Resorting to the Judiciary to Get Information…and Draw a Road Map

In addition to the contradictory statements by the ministers, there is scarcity of information available on how to import wheat and the required grinding standards. How is flour made, and what does the way it is transported and the level of its humidity have to do with its safety? And what does its quality assessment depend on?

These questions surfaced publicly during the wheat crisis, but remained unanswered amid all the political bickering. Hence, litigation was necessary to clarify the matter under the supervision of a reliable judiciary. It is hoped that the appointed experts' report from the judiciary provide thorough details on the measures adopted to ensure food safety, their efficacy and gaps. Some questions that need to be answered include: is all the cargo of imported wheat examined or only some of it? when does examination take place? when do the results come out? are the results available before the cargo is received from the silos, or the mills, or after? are samples taken in a scientific manner? are there technical and scientific capacities available to ensure wheat safety? what are the procedures followed to ensure the safety of the wheat in the silos of the ports and mills? Two things contribute to the ability to provide answers. First, assigning independent and specialized experts with the main role of providing professional and reliable information at this stage; and, second, expanding the scope of the expert inquiry to include the official managements and concerned private institutions, such as mills, ovens, and laboratories alike.

The importance of accessing information through judicial experience comes while the proposal to pass a right to access information law is still pending discussion by the General Assembly since April 2013. This law aims to promote transparency and fight corruption by enabling every citizen to exercise the right of access to information and view documents held by management. Regardless of the weaknesses and flaws in the bill, the wheat issue shows that it is desperately needed, as there is no clear and binding legal mechanism for obtaining information, even when it comes to a major issue, such as wheat. Perhaps these lawsuits can be a catalyst to accelerate the consideration and passing of this law.

Towards Establishing the National Authority for Food Safety?

The issue of carcinogenic wheat came to light after Abu Faour launched a campaign in late 2014, inspecting restaurants and institutions that did not meet the health conditions and standards. The campaign revealed massive violations which led to the closure of a number of institutions. Amidst the panic that prevailed in the country, Parliament found itself compelled to accelerate the passing of the Food Safety Law in November 2015, twelve years after the law’s first draft was submitted to Parliament.[1]

This law was about forming a body which is the “Lebanese Association for Food Safety (LAFS)”. According to Article 29 of the law, this association shall coordinate between the respective ministries and departments concerned with food safety. It shall also collect and analyze the scientific and technical information relating to food safety. Article 29 also stipulates that LAFS shall take on the “traceability process of the food chain at all stages, to be able to analyze the risks of the food safety chain, in coordination with the competent managements to issue every violation ticket…”. LAFS can also take selective samples of food products to conduct proper tests and analyses, as well receive complaints from citizens, investigate, and refer them to the concerned managements. Although it is agreed that the establishment of this body is crucial for the protection of food safety, the Council of Ministers is still slackening in issuing a decree to establish such body and appoint its members.

This is why this latest civil society initiative is of considerable significance. It is as if the judge, under his supervision and at the request of the litigants and lawyers, took on the appointment of experts in order to carry out some of the functions of this body to ensure wheat safety. Among the main tasks is tracing the cargoes of imported wheat upon arrival to the port until distribution of flour to the ovens, and checking the followed procedures. While we cannot merely count on lawsuits to be informed about the full role of the body in protecting food safety, these lawsuits and any future ones in other realms that may be filed are an important reminder to the government of its failure to establish this body, and to exert pressure on it in this context.

From this standpoint, it seems the wheat case and the social and judicial dynamic it reflects is an inducement to push towards activating institutions, most prominently the establishment of the Lebanese Association for Food Safety. On the other hand, this issue would accelerate the passing of the law on the right to access information. Will these cases succeed in waking the state from its slumber?

This Article is an Edited Translation from Arabic.

[1] For more information about the law, see: Marian Khater, “The Joint Parliamentary Committees Approves the Amended Food Safety Bill”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 25, February 2015.

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