LEBANON — Study findings by a committee of nine experts known as the Scientific Committee on Food Safety ha shown a spike in food poisoning cases in Lebanon, since the start of summer in June.

This has been attributed to the country’s increased power outages with the Ministry of Public Health citing that the true scale of the numbers has not been officially reported. 

“The problem is that we know there is a spike in food poisoning because all the factors associated with food poisoning are present. You have a lack of electricity that affects refrigeration, which affects the quality and safety of food. The factors are there, but the reporting isn’t,” Mohamad Abiad, associate professor of food processing and packaging at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor.

The Scientific Committee on Food Safety was formed in September by the Ministry of Public Health to investigate emergency issues of food safety coinciding with the electricity crisis.

Committee head Joyce Haddad, who also serves as director of food safety in the Ministry of Public Health, said the biggest problem is the lack of a system to keep track of accurate information. In 2019, 510 cases were reported. Despite all the anecdotal evidence of a sharp rise in cases, only 210 have been reported so far in 2021.

One of the goals of the committee is to establish an apparatus that not only gathers statistics from hospitals but also encourages doctors and pharmacies to report figures in the wake of the food poisoning surge.

According to a recent report from Lebanese nongovernmental organization Legal Agenda, one out of every three people who enter pharmacies request for medicine to treat food poisoning. A reporter for local TV station MTV tweeted in July seeking recent victims of food poisoning and his tweet received hundreds of replies.

Past food poisoning cases

Although there is an increase in cases, the issue of food poisoning is not new in Lebanon. In 2015, a food safety campaign was launched by the then-Minister of Public Health, Wael Abu Faour.

The campaign passed a decree for Food Safety Law No. 48 that stipulated the formation of a Lebanese Food Safety Authority (FSA), Lebanon’s equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. Yet because of political differences over finding the right sectarian quota, the committee was never established.

The electricity crisis has also been present for decades. But with the economic meltdown that traces back to two years, the state has struggled more than ever to provide reliable fuel and power to the country’s residents.

One of the most damaging repercussions of the fuel crisis is felt in small food businesses, supermarkets and restaurants. Securing daily food has become a complex process, and those who used to order delivery meals now think twice before picking up the phone for fear of food poisoning.

Many supermarkets and restaurants have had to switch to lower-quality ingredients and suppliers as a result of the spike in prices. A sign outside the Carrefour in City Mall recently displayed reads: “To our valued customers, this fridge has been turned off and the products have been moved to other fridges to maintain enough fuel to be able to continue to serve you for as long as possible.”

Frozen products can last 48 hours until they become dangerous for human consumption, which is above 5 degrees. But for refrigeration, including dairy products, there are only four hours to salvage food.  According to Nabil Fahd, head of the Supermarket Owners Syndicate in Lebanon, 80% of sales have fallen in supermarkets across the country.

The Lebanese government was formed Sept. 10 after more than a year of political paralysis in the country. Meanwhile, the Scientific Committee on Food Safety is trying to find solutions to curb the food poisoning crisis. In particular, they are working with various syndicates to develop an emergency plan and collect accurate data.

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