The current food safety campaign: brouhaha with no serious outcomes

Sun, 11/30/2014

The present campaign launched by the Minister of Health, Wa2el Abou Faoor, to combat food corruption in bakeries, butcheries and food stores uncovered, yet again, the level of disorientation and weakness of public institutions and their limited capacity to address such a vital issue for citizens.
Abou Faoor’s revelations of the names of institutions in violation of the law stirred vibrant and divergent reactions, both on official and economic levels, while receiving warm welcome and support from the public.
It is not surprising that criticism of Abou Faoor’s action would come primarily from his fellow ministers as well as restaurants and hotel owners who considered that the campaign is likely to undermine the economy. It is nevertheless odd that the latter same instances would request the endorsement of the food security law project given that they have benefited from its absence for so long and have sabotaged previous attempts to approve it, in keeping with their interests, and particularly since the law includes clear and strict food regulations.
To be noted that the proposed food safety law, which sets the framework, policies, and criteria related to food safety, is still lingering in the drawers of the parliamentary Commission since before 2005, and this despite its wider importance. Furthermore another law aiming and including clauses which protect consumers from abuse was endorsed back in 2005. However, the implementation of the new law was blocked because of the absence of legislative means for reinforcement. Two essential components of the adopted law which remain in suspense, are first the creation of the consumers’ protection court which will rule in the case of contention between suppliers and consumers, and second, the set up of the higher council for consumers to be headed by the Minister of Economy and Trade.

The problem of food safety is far from new. Two years ago, former Minister of Agriculture, Hussein Hajj Hassan, had divulged information about food stores in violation of the law and threatened them with closure. However, the matter was soon set to rest because of the absence of regular control and monitoring mechanisms.

Given all the above, there are serious doubts facing Abou Faoor’s campaign. A first question, which comes to mind, is the extent to which the authorities will be able to confront large businesses, rather than get dragged into dodgy compromises over the safety and health of citizens? Secondly, can public institutions sustain this campaign long after compromises are struck? Thirdly, what is the fate of the food safety law project and whether or not it will be possible to resolve the issue of overlapping mandates between several ministries, a key issue which is obstructing its approval? Finally, how will the implementation of the law affect small merchants, stores and restaurants owners, and in which way the authorities can protect their existence while implementing the safety regulation? One option is that the law is gradually implemented so as to give space to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to adopt the requirements rather than push them to bankruptcy and foreclosure.