One man’s army
Wael Abou Faour’s food safety campaign may not outlive him
On a crisp February morning just before dawn, two boys walk down the narrow street leading to the center of the Sabra meat market with short knives tucked away in sheaths attached to their belts. Just a few months earlier, Health Minister Wael Abou Faour had told a press conference, “I’m embarrassed to show the media what the inspectors discovered at Sabra.” According to a writeup in TheDaily Star on the conference, the minister said he’d also ordered the closure of a few butcher shops in the camp. When Executive visited in February, evidence of closures was nowhere to be found. One butcher — who asked not to be named — said the camp’s slaughterhouse had long been shuttered. Indeed, the daily Al Mustaqbal reported the closure back in 2003. Today, predawn Sabra is an open air market for wholesalers selling to retailers. Beef sold in the market is slaughtered elsewhere. For Hassan Merhi, a young man who only recently joined the family business, elsewhere is privately run slaughterhouses in Choueifat or Fanar.
Merhi’s uncle used to ply his trade at the Beirut slaughterhouse. He says his family has been slaughtering for generations — claiming his great-grandfather used to walk sheep from Medina, Saudi Arabia, to Beirut. Refusing to be too specific or offer exact figures, he confides that transportation costs involved in moving operations from outside Beirut to Sabra are high so the family sometimes clandestinely slaughters somewhere in the city. Knowing that’s illegal, he won’t say where. Merhi’s cost saving scheme is not, however, unique.
As is often the case in Lebanon, Executive was not able to get exact statistics on illegal slaughter practices, but Bassel Al-Bazzal, head of animal health services at the Ministry of Agriculture, knows it’s happening. “Actually, all over Lebanon they are slaughtering outside of the slaughterhouses,” he says, as he takes Executive on a virtual tour of the private and public slaughterhouses in the country. Repeatedly referring to a list compiled in 2013, which he says is confidential, Bazzal explains that there are a total of 14 licensed private slaughterhouses in the country — 12 of which are in Mount Lebanon. “But there are some [private] slaughterhouses that are not registered yet, so we can say there are more than this,” he says. Additionally, there are 13 public abattoirs run by municipalities.
Licenses, he says, come from the Ministry of Industry while the Ministry of Agriculture provides a health registration number, which he explains is not exactly a license, but is necessary for a slaughterhouse to run legally, as per Law 949/1 from 2011. The Ministry of Agriculture has veterinarians on site to inspect meat post slaughter to ensure it is ready for market. The ministry also has inspectors who visit abattoirs to see if they comply with technical and health criteria, Bazzal explains. They visit during the day, after the actual killing — which takes place in the wee hours of the morning — is finished.
“We inspect the places, not the process of slaughtering. It’s not possible to go at night,” he says.
Not seeing the process also decreased the usefulness of a recent and well publicized visit to the Beirut slaughterhouse by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Maurice Saade, the FAO representative in Beirut, tells Executive in a telephone interview that the body is refraining from making specific recommendations until members can see the abattoir in action. “We need to come back and visit once it’s reopened,” Saade says. He explains that the FAO has prepared a report and, as of mid March, planned to hand it over to the Ministry of Agriculture. He says that because the ministry commissioned the report, it will be the ministry’s call whether or not to make it public.
THE HEALTH MINISTRY HAS ONLY 70 INSPECTORS — THE MINISTRY OF ECONOMY AND TRADE
Both Bazzal and Walid Ammar, director general of the Ministry of Public Health, place the responsibility of regulating unlicensed slaughterhouses at the doors of the country’s various municipalities. Ammar explains that the ministry has 70 inspectors spread throughout Lebanon (which he says is too few, pointing to the 170 inspectors employed by the Ministry of Economy and
General Abou Faour