GHOBEIRI: “We cannot continue to do things in the way that some people want us to” when it comes to food security, Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan declared Tuesday.
He made the comments after disclosing the latest foodstuff “scandal,” this time involving a shipment of 50,000 kilograms of spoiled coffee that was destined for Syria via the Masnaa-Jdeideh border crossing.
An investigation into the suspect goods revealed that a forged Lebanese Agriculture Ministry inspection certificate, along with a supposedly “official” stamp, were used in the attempt to get the shipment into Syria.
After having been rejected for entry at the Port of Lattakia, the goods arrived at the Port of Beirut, where they were processed for transit to Syria, and ended up at the Syrian border-crossing point at Jdeideh.
“We currently don’t inspect transit goods,” said Hajj Hassan, addressing a news conference at the ministry.
When the Syrians once again refused to allow the coffee shipment to enter, they alerted the Lebanese authorities, who opened an investigation into the accompanying paperwork.
Hajj Hassan provided reporters with copies of several documents connected to the case. One sheet contained various examples of currently used ministry stamps, along with the purportedly forged coffee shipment documents, which bore a slightly different stamp.
The minister said he agreed to meet with the businesspeople responsible for the spoiled coffee shipment on the condition that they reveal how the forgery was carried out.
“They came to my office, but talked about things in general terms, without giving me any information,” Hajj Hassan said. “So I took legal action.”
The case is now with the judiciary, and the minister said the incident showed that his ministry was serious about its campaign to improve food security.
Hajj Hassan distributed a list of other foodstuffs that have been recently refused entry into Lebanon, such as wheat, sesame, fish, meat, chicken, cheese and butter, as well as consignments of agricultural pesticides and fertilizer.
The minister said that some cases involved the failure to meet health-and-safety specifications, such as proper cold storage conditions, while others involved outright “corruption,” namely forged certificates and forged paperwork.
The names of countries of origin as well as the importers were removed from the documents, as some of the cases are now with the judiciary.
Hajj Hassan said the ministry’s efforts represented a break with the past in a country where 70 to 80 percent of food and beverages are imported, and where lax inspection measures have generated public-health problems.
“We’ve been upgrading and enforcing our [inspection] measures,” Hajj Hassan said, acknowledging that this has resulted in delays in processing certain imports.
“But things are getting better, and there will be no retreat from these measures,” he added.
“We cannot continue to do things the way that some people want us to,” he said. “Every day, people contact the ministry” about shipments that have been held up for inspection.
Hajj Hassan promised to ensure that the inspection and related procedures would be simplified and streamlined, but repeatedly stressed that he would continue to encourage strict implementation of the existing measures.
Fewer than 100 ministry employees are responsible for this task, at six entry points: Rafik Hariri International Airport, Beirut Port, the Tripoli Port, and the Abboudieh, Al-Qaa and Masnaa land crossings.
The minister said that in the coming months an upgrade in equipment would also take place to facilitate the work of inspection teams and the ministry’s laboratory facilities.
He said that a number of ministry employees had received bonuses and commendations for their actions in the food-security efforts, while others had been disciplined for their performance.
Further achievements in the field of inspecting produce for export would be announced soon, Hajj Hassan promised.