Hun­gry for change

A new law is needed to en­sure the coun­try’s food is safe to eat

Executive Magazine - - Leaders -

Food safety has be­come a na­tional spec­ta­cle over the past sev­eral months. While there have been no re­cent food­borne epi­demics, Health Min­is­ter Wael Abou Faour has in­ces­santly re­minded us that much of what we eat “vi­o­lates health stan­dards.” Yet de­spite this cringe­wor­thy thought, it is re­fresh­ing to see the min­is­ter tak­ing food safety so se­ri­ously — notwith­stand­ing our nag­ging sus­pi­cions about his true mo­tives for wag­ing this cam­paign and dis­ap­point­ment over his lack of hard num­bers to re­in­force how se­ri­ous the risks we face are. Abou Faour has re­peat­edly pledged not to let food safety fall off the radar when he leaves of­fice, but we need much more than a pledge. We need se­ri­ous in­sti­tu­tional re­form.

For far too long, Le­banon’s elected of­fi­cials have known there are se­ri­ous prob­lems with the cur­rent sys­tem for en­sur­ing that what we eat is safe and clean. That said, Abou Faour is the first min­is­ter of public health to name, shame and prom­ise change in over a decade. His ef­forts are laud­able, but the prob­lem is over­lap­ping author­ity — the min­istries of agri­cul­ture, public health, tourism, econ­omy and in­dus­try, as well as each of the coun­try’s six gov­er­nors all play a role in mon­i­tor­ing food safety, not to men­tion the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. When mul­ti­ple gov­ern­ment agen­cies have re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for some­thing, it is all too easy for ev­ery­one to do noth­ing but blame each other if and when an epi­demic hap­pens.

In re­cent years, intermittent re­ports of ware­houses full of ex­pired meat or potato chips have sur­faced time and again. Last year, Ex­ec­u­tive re­ported that farm­ers fac­ing a wa­ter cri­sis were di­vert­ing waste­water to be used for ir­ri­ga­tion. There is no le­git­i­mate rea­son why neg­li­gent food han­dling has con­tin­ued for so long. We un­der­stand that busi­ness own­ers on any link of the food chain might try sneak­ing ex­pired prod­ucts into the mar­ket rather than count­ing them as losses, but this is ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able.

To­day, ac­cord­ing to the direc­tor gen­eral of the min­istry of health, there are only 70 health in­spec­tors work­ing for the min­istry, which is un­der­funded and un­der­staffed. If, as the direc­tor gen­eral claims, other min­istries are not do­ing their jobs prop­erly vis-à-vis food safety, the chances that this cru­sade will end with Abou Faour’s term are far too high for us to be com­fort­able re­ly­ing only on a pledge that Wael’s war will out­last him. We need in­sti­tu­tional change and con­cen­trated author­ity. We need a new law, and a draft ap­proved in Jan­uary 2015 by par­lia­ment’s joint com­mit­tees seems like the best start.

Chap­ter three of the draft calls for the cre­ation of a cen­tral­ized body, the Le­banese Food Safety Com­mis­sion, that would have full con­trol of food safety from in­spect­ing im­ported food be­fore it is dis­trib­uted, to vis­it­ing farms and slaugh­ter­houses to make sure best prac­tices are be­ing im­ple­mented. This is a good idea pro­vided the com­mis­sion is fully staffed with enough in­spec­tors to rou­tinely con­duct ran­dom­ized safety checks through­out the coun­try. While ar­ti­cle 30 of the draft de­lin­eates 21 tasks the com­mis­sion will be re­spon­si­ble for — such as over­see­ing the ‘trace­abil­ity’ process, i.e. track­ing food through all stages of pro­duc­tion to an­a­lyze any po­ten­tial risks — the ex­act de­tails will come in fu­ture by­laws.

Par­lia­ment Speaker Nabih Berri re­port­edly wants to con­vene a leg­isla­tive ses­sion in mid April, and this draft should be on the agenda and given an up or down vote. On top of that, the cabi­net must swiftly pass any nec­es­sary im­ple­ment­ing de­crees to en­sure the food safety com­mis­sion is cre­ated quickly, given proper author­ity and fully funded. The un­for­tu­nately com­mon prac­tice of re­forms be­ing still­born be­cause the cabi­net fails to fol­low up with the nec­es­sary im­ple­ment­ing de­crees can­not be al­lowed to hap­pen in this case. Food safety is a must, and the only way to avoid more scan­dals in the fu­ture is to prop­erly mon­i­tor and reg­u­late the sec­tor. En­sur­ing safety is a day-in and day-out job, not some­thing that will hap­pen when some­one raises a stink ev­ery few years. Bet­ter to turn the cur­rent spec­ta­cle into some­thing pro­duc­tive, lest we have a true food safety is­sue in the fu­ture. of poor in­fra­struc­ture than the rel­a­tively pos­i­tive state of the in­ter­net. In­ter­net speeds are still very slow com­pared to other coun­tries. Down­load speeds av­er­aged 3.3 Mbit/s, ac­cord­ing to Ookla Net In­dex cal­cu­lated over a pe­riod of 30 days end­ing March 24. This com­pares to a global av­er­age of 22.6 Mbit/s cal­cu­lated over the same pe­riod.

If you think that such slow in­ter­net has a mar­ginal im­pact, think again. Slug­gish speeds not only hin­der stream­ing YouTube videos; they drag down the growth of the en­tire econ­omy. And con­versely, a 10 per­cent in­crease in broad­band pen­e­tra­tion has cor­re­lated to an ad­di­tional 1.38 per­cent in GDP growth in low and mid­dle in­come coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Union. To spark growth,

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