BEIRUT — Cases of food poisoning have been on the rise since the summer amidst Lebanon’s increased power outages. The true scale of the numbers has not been officially reported, according to Lebanon's Ministry of Public Health.
“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,” Mohamad Abiad, associate professor of food processing and packaging at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor. “The factors are there, but the reporting isn’t.”
A committee of nine experts known as the Scientific Committee on Food Safety was formed Sept. 1 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 spike.
According to a recent report from Lebanese nongovernmental organization Legal Agenda, one out of every three people who enter pharmacies is requesting medicine to treat food poisoning. A reporter for local TV station MTV tweeted in July: “Who of you has recently suffered from food poisoning?” His tweet received hundreds of replies.
For the past two years, the country has suffered through an unprecedented financial crisis in addition to severe medical and fuel shortages. Beirut also witnessed a massive explosion that devastated large parts of the capital. Yet while some Lebanese with fresh dollars (dollars that were transferred directly from abroad and are not currently available in bank accounts) who are away from the capital have been able to escape the plights and tragedies that have affected so many, the effects of this escalating electricity crisis — with food poisoning being one of many — are felt in every household.
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 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, Lebanon's equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration 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.
Hiba al-Masr, 40, opened up in 2011 a food-catering business she named Oriental Restaurant, with the aim of serving healthy "plats du jour" to Beirut residents.
“Back then, the days were easier. Lebanon was good. There was electricity. The dollar was stabilized at 1.500 liras, and we could buy and sell and be more comfortable,” she told Al-Monitor.
Today, what tires her most is the exorbitant increase in prices. Yet she remains committed to serving healthy food in the wake of the food poisoning crisis. “I’m still using the cooking supplies and everything as before to ensure the same quality. I’m very concerned right now about food safety and want our food to be clean so no one ever gets sick from it.”
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. In fact, 80% of sales have fallen in supermarkets across the country, according to Nabil Fahd, head of the Supermarket Owners Syndicate in Lebanon.
Whereas state electricity used to cover most of the energy in the city with people relying on generators, now the situation has been totally reversed and some generators run for over 12 hours a day.
“We no longer receive electricity from the government — maximum three hours per day if they like you,” Mustafa Kalach, 28, manager of Neighbor’s Pub, told Al-Monitor. The state electricity turned on during the interview for five minutes and then turned promptly off.
The restaurant, located on popular Hamra Street, also closed its doors for four days as a preventative measure against potential food poisoning. The restaurant, which has been operating for 14 years, no long opens for breakfast.
“We were forced to close for four days, from Aug. 6-10, because we realized food was spoiled and we did not want people to get poisoned. We cleaned the fridges and freezers and put them outside in the sun because mold was growing,” he said. “Food is arriving to your place already spoiled because suppliers need electricity. This temporary close was essential because it showed people that we are being safe and cautious, and all stores in Beirut should do this. In all of Beirut, there wasn’t electricity, but rarely places closed.”
According to Antoine El-Zoghbi, head of the emergency department at Hotel-Dieu Hospital, food poisoning cases are up 20% from last year. Yet the symptoms of those who suffer from food poisoning are more severe now than ever before, he said.
The rise in food poisoning started in the spring of 2021 when the lockdown concluded and gatherings in public spaces resumed. And many who are succumbing to food poisoning are not going to hospitals, fearing COVID-19, high hospital bills or the lack of medicine.
“People know there are not many medications available, so going to a hospital with no medication will not change anything and people would prefer to stay at home,” Abiad said.
The biggest crisis contributing to the uptick in food poisoning is the faltering economy. When the financial crisis began and the lira lost 80% of its value, salaries of inspectors plummeted. The low pay meant much of their income would be spent on gas or transportation. Add to this the prospect of bribery, which rises in desperate times.
“You don’t want to conduct an inspection at this point because bribery will rise. If a factory owner gives extra money to an inspector not to disclose information he’s collected in case of violations, they might not do their job and instead say everything passed,” Abiad said. Eight out of 50 inspectors in the Ministry of Public Health have resigned in recent weeks.
“It is not only inspectors, but those in high positions as well that are resigning. We are suffering from a massive human resource crisis,” confirmed Haddad. In spite of this exodus, many doctors and health care employees have decided to stay put out of a moral obligation toward their patients.
The Lebanese government was formed Sept. 10 after more than a year of political paralysis in the country. New Minister of Public Health Firass Abiad has inherited a mountain of challenges. At the top of his agenda is providing access to medication and hospitalization, especially for the 78% who are estimated by the UN to be living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the Scientific Committee on Food Safety is trying to find solutions to curb the food poisoning crisis. Above all, they are working with various syndicates to develop an emergency plan and collect accurate data.
“We have financial problems, electrical problems, infrastructure problems, and all that affect the health and food poisoning problem,” pub manager Kalach said. “We always said we were not going to get to a place where we are going to have to close because of electricity, but we did. This is for the interests of the store, and especially for our clients.”