BEIRUT: Armed with popular and political support, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour Friday stepped up his campaign against companies selling contaminated food, demanding the closure of two restaurants and a butcher shop in Beirut accused of violating food safety.
Although Abu Faour has vowed to press ahead with his crackdown on contaminated food, questions were raised about how far the minister can go in his battle against fraud in the food industry, given the fact that all efforts in the past to stamp out rampant corruption in the public administration had failed due to the interference of influential politicians.
Furthermore, the food security scandal that jolted Lebanon this week has threatened to throw the already divided Cabinet into further disarray as the of tourism and economy ministers sharply criticized Abu Faour, arguing that his food safety campaign harmed restaurants and the country’s tourism.
“The Health Ministry has asked the Interior Ministry to ban the selling of beef products at the Natour butcher shop in Ras Beirut for containing harmful bacteria, and to seize grinding machines and a mixer used to make meat products,” Abu Faour said in a statement.
He said the request was based on a Health Ministry monitoring report that the butcher shop did not meet standards for food safety and that the “situation inside the butcher shop was tragic in terms of cleanliness.”
Abu Faour also asked the Interior Ministry to close down Malek al-Batata restaurant on Hamra Street for five days for failing to fulfill food safety standards and general hygiene. The restaurant must address the issues before a second inspection.
The minister also asked the Interior Ministry to destroy damaged products at Farrouj Abboud in the southern Beirut suburb of Sfeir and shut down the restaurant until new samples are taken for testing.
He also referred all cases involving food safety violations to the public prosecutor.
The request to the Interior Ministry came after Abu Faour defended himself against criticism over the food scandal that broke out Tuesday when the minister read the names of 37 restaurants and supermarkets found to be selling contaminated food. He named 16 more offending food shops during a news conference Thursday, prompting Economy Minister Alain Hakim to accuse Abu Faour of “terrorizing” the establishments.
Responding to his critics, Abu Faour, speaking at a news conference Friday at the laboratory conducting the tests on foodstuffs, said: “Enough with political and commercial debauchery.”
“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 said.
He vowed to continue the campaign against contaminated food in all Lebanese areas and urged big restaurants to cooperate with the Health Ministry. “The campaign is [designed] to protect all the people,” he said.
Abu Faour blasted chicken farms as a “catastrophe” on food safety, saying slaughterhouses needed rehabilitation. He also pledged to take measures against companies selling polluted water.
As the food security scandal reverberated across the country, representatives of tourism unions met in the northern city of Tripoli to show solidarity with the owners of restaurants and supermarkets whose names were mentioned in Abu Faour’s blacklist.
Pierre Ashkar, head of the Hotel Owners’ Association, accused Abu Faour of tarnishing Lebanon’s image with his campaign.
Addressing the health minister, Ashkar said: “You have succeeded in striking us and striking restaurants and Lebanon’s image, which is at the forefront in the Arab nation’s images. While these [Arab] countries are seeking to obtain Lebanese logos, you are today stabbing them in the heart.”
He said food establishments should not be defamed. “Everyone knows that meat carries germs that can be destroyed through heating,” Ashkar added.
Abu Faour also said 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 see the results before trying to discredit them.
Abu Faour said the ministry had agreed with the American University of Beirut to send samples to its laboratory because the institute could no longer accommodate additional work, which the head of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, Michel Afram, estimated at 280 samples per day.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Ministry has blacklisted a foreign meat company for selling Lebanon contaminated products. “We announce that the Indian Mirha [Export] company has been removed from the list of companies whose imports are allowed into Lebanon after we rejected three consecutive meat shipments,” Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb said in a statement.
The meat shipments were contaminated with Salmonella, he said. Chehayeb insisted the Agriculture Ministry followed a strict policy of rejecting all agricultural and food imports that don’t meet health standards.