BEIRUT: Health Minister Wael Abu Faour Friday sought to quell criticism about his recent naming of establishments selling contaminated food, revealing details about the laboratory work on samples and blasting chicken farms as a “catastrophe” on food safety.
At the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute in a Beirut suburb, Abu Faour brought the head of the institute and a lab worker to explain the sampling process and the bacteria found in contaminated food sold by supermarkets and restaurants.
“Some people turned this campaign from one to reveal the truth and corruption into a defamation campaign by some shop owners and politicians who sympathize with them,” Abu Faour told reporters in a televised news conference.
“Enough with political debauchery,” he said.
Later in day, the health minister asked the Interior Ministry to temporarily shut two restaurants and a butcher shop in Beirut over food safety violations.
They included Natour butcher shop in Ras Beirut after their products were found to contain bacteria, Malek al-Batata in Hamra for failing to meet safety standards and general hygiene, and Farrouj Abboud in the southern Beirut suburb of Sfeir.
During the health minister's news conference the head of LARI, Michel Afram, said the institute had worked in accordance with international standards for almost 75 years and was accredited by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Afram also denied allegations of corruption and malicious behavior toward the establishments that Abu Faour named earlier this week, saying: “The samples we receive must be fresh otherwise we return it."
"We work based on a set of international specifications to test the sample,” he added.
Afram hinted that some of his laboratory workers were approached with bribes to manipulate the results of the testing, but denied that they accepted them, emphasizing that LARI was an independent, objective institute.
Earlier this week, Abu Faour unleashed havoc in the food industry by publicly naming several renowned restaurants and supermarkets selling contaminated poultry and beef in several parts of the country.
The controversy prompted some ministers to criticize Abu Faour for his hasty move to publicly name the institutions, while several owners of some of the institutions accused the minister of defamation.
During his tour at LARI, Abu Faour also invited a laboratory head to detail the types of bacteria found in the samples and the side effects that could occur after consumption.
The laboratory technician said traces of E. coli were present in samples of beef, particularly ground beef, which indicated that the food had come in contact with sewage and that the grinding machines were dirty.
Other bacteria found in beef indicated that either that the problem was from the slaughterhouse that distributed the meat, or the handling of the meat at kitchens in supermarkets or restaurants.
The lab technician also spoke about the presence of Salmonella in chicken samples, which she said was caused by mishandling chicken and slaughtering them in a way that would allow the intestines of the bird to spill out.
“This can cause diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting,” she said.
She also spoke about “the most dangerous bacteria” found in the meat: Listeria, which is especially harmful to pregnant women and their fetuses, and could cause miscarriage and meningitis.
Abu Faour and Afram spoke about chicken farms in Lebanon with the minister saying that such farms were a “catastrophe” on food safety in the country and that slaughterhouses needed rehabilitation.
The health minister also said that many supermarkets and restaurants began secretly removing large quantities of their meat and chicken in the late hours of the evening, days after he named and shamed most of them.
He urged supermarkets to approach the ministry to take a look at the results before trying to discredit them.
“Come to the ministry so we could show you the results and we see where you went wrong and we are happy to test your samples once again and exonerate you in the media,” Abu Faour said.
He said Roadster Diner, one of the main establishments using contaminated chicken breasts as per the institute’s results, sent their own samples after being named this week, and the results were similar.
Abu Faour said the campaign was ongoing and that the ministry has reached an agreement with the American University of Beirut to send samples to its laboratory because the institute could no longer accommodate additional work, which Afram estimated at 280 samples per day.
The institute would continue working during the weekend to test incoming samples in the ongoing campaign, Abu Faour said.
Later in the day Al Jadeed reported that the health ministry will start collecting samples from restaurants and supermarkets from the southern city of Sidon.