The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global health and world economic systems at various levels, and has left its mark on the affected countries without exception. The food sector is considered a critical part of the national infra-structure and, due to the repetitive lockdowns, is combating serious challenges from supply chain disruption, to workforce absenteeism and the need of certain jobs to be occupied remotely.
To date, there is no evidence that food poses a public health risk in relation to COVID-19. It is reassuring that despite the large scale of the pandemic, there has been no report of transmission of COVID-19 via food consumption. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) have both warned that the lockdown could have altered national and international food safety control systems, with the lack of personnel and the need to telecommute making it difficult to operate as normal.
To add to those international challenges, Lebanon is facing an additional economic crisis due to the significant devaluation of the currency. This crisis has crippled the food supply and especially the primary materials needed in food production. It is therefore unsurprising that food fraud could become more prevalent and food safety alerts are rising.
Many food safety violations have already occurred. In November 2020, tons of wheat flour were found poorly stored in Beirut stadium. On the 8th of January 2021, expired sushi ingredients were found in warehouses supplying more than 200 restaurants across the country with the real expiration dates manipulated. On this same date, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) reported the presence of cockroach parts, animal feces among other physical hazards in wheat flour used for bread production due to mishandling and bad storage.
Food quality and safety hazards can cause harm to public health, have a significant impact on the healthy development of the food industry, and even pose a huge threat to social and political stability. It is the responsibility of the food industry and the government to prevent any food safety risk.
Every citizen is the best regulator of food safety and can actively participate in food regulation.
Although it could be difficult for the public to judge on food safety matters, however, there are still avenues for effective participation in food safety risk governance.
Consumers can and should complain about food for sale or foods they already purchased, under the following circumstances:
1. If you suspect the presence of any foreign object (animal parts, feces, human parts, glass, plastic particles…).
2. If you suspect the presence of any foodborne pathogen due to change in color, odor or appearance.
3. If you find any food with incorrect or misleading labelling.
4. If you find any food being sold past its use-by date or expiry date.
5. If you find food product stored or transported at wrong temperatures.
6. If you see any food handler practicing unsafe food handling such as unhygienic, improper actions, storage or preparation of food.
7. You suspect counterfeit product.
8. You suspect high prices of goods.
Active feedback is also needed. Alongside proper criticism, provide positive feedback to support the industries that are abiding by safe production.
Direct participation in the food safety control is essential to pressure on the government and the food industry to produce and import safe and high-quality products.
Complaints can be posted on social media (instagram, facebook, whatsapp), sent via the Consumer protection application or Hot Line 1739, or reported to the Lebanese Association of Food Scientists and Technologists (#LAFST, or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Christelle Bou Mitri Ph.D., PCQI
Assistant Professor in Food Safety and Quality Management at Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU) Faculty of Nursing and Health Sciences.