Writer: Lily Gerges
Lily Gerges wrote in An-Nahar:
On May 3, 2023, Belgium announced the seizure of a quantity of pistachios exported from Lebanon due to contamination with “Aflatoxin B1”, which is one of the most powerful toxic substances that appear naturally and is produced by fungi.
A few days before this incident, Cyprus seized crushed cumin spices exported from Syria via Lebanon, and the reason is that it contains remnants of an unlicensed pesticide called Noron.
This is not the first time that a scandal about food safety has come to light, and we remember well the letter sent by the Lebanese ambassador to Japan to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Lebanon in 2018, which sparked many reactions.
The content of this message was that Japan is banning the import of Lebanese nuts as a result of they contain a kind of “smut” that grows and nests inside the pistachio shell and causes cancerous diseases when eaten inside the human body. This extract came after conducting several medical researches in Japan, several years ago, which included roasted pistachios.
If the goods that are exported abroad contain this carcinogenic substance, what about the products and goods in the Lebanese market that lack effective control to ensure their safety, proper storage and packaging?
Not many people knew about the news of the seizure of this shipment to Belgium and the carcinogenic substance it contained, and the Lebanese state did not issue any clarification about the details of what happened. It was found that the proportion of “aflatoxin B1” in the exported pistachios amounted to 261 ug/kg, while the maximum allowable amount is 8 ug/kg, which means that the amount present exceeds the allowable dozens of times.
In a follow-up to the matter with the Ministry of Economy, the Director of Consumer Protection at the Ministry of Economy, Tariq Yunis, confirmed that “the ministry is following up the investigation after it was notified of a notification about a specific product in one of the countries. We are following the matter in detail, and we are awaiting sampling to ensure the validity of the results, and after their issuance, the decision is issued.” Either by destroying it or by returning it, but nothing can be said today before the end of the investigation and the issuance of results.”
Regarding the increase in warnings or similar cases in other countries for some products exported from Lebanon, he stresses that “the number is not large and that the Lebanese industry is committed to international specifications and conforms to them, and the reported cases are very limited compared to the past.”
But what do these warnings mean? And what after returning it to Lebanon?
Professor Ismat Qassem, who works at the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia (United States), explains that “usually the state examines any product exported to it before entering and distributing it, and recently a quantity of pistachios exported from Lebanon was seized in Belgium. Some may hasten to say Lebanon does not produce pistachios, but what we should know is that Lebanon imports pistachios, roasts them and then packs them and labels them “produced in Lebanon”.
In the details, the shipment of pistachios contained the substance “aflatoxin B1” at a high rate, and since this substance is toxic, the shipment was confiscated and denied entry, and a letter was sent to the concerned company and to the exporting country. The European Union report did not mention the name of the company, but only confirmed that it had sent a letter to the concerned company.
The question that arises is, are there similar products in the country? What should I know about aflatoxin?
Qasim confirms that it is a “toxic substance secreted by fungus or mold, and it may reach pistachios either from the field or as a result of improper storage. The substance is considered dangerous because it destroys DNA and causes cancer.”
It should be noted that the aim is not to offend the Lebanese industry and its products, but rather to know the truth about what is happening in Lebanon, in the absence of periodic examinations and permanent monitoring.
Qassem wonders about the problem, which is the import of products without the ability to test them, and if a pollutant arrives, it cannot be disposed of in the manufacturing process, which means that the product will remain contaminated. The problem remains the absence of examinations, which affect the country’s reputation first. And the most dangerous is that it affects the health of people who eat what is available and available.
It is true that seizing an unhealthy shipment remains individual and cannot be generalized, but its recurrence reflects the scale of the crisis in the food safety file. For example, Cyprus seized a quantity of spice containing a pesticide manufactured in Syria and exported through Lebanon.
And if we had a laboratory and the ability to examine it, the results would have shown that it is not sound.
Returning to the website of the European Union for Food Safety, we can notice that this warning is included among other warnings such as couscous, flour, grapes and other products for the year 2022, which contain pesticides, bacteria and unlicensed materials used in the production process.
The Lebanese University also prepared a study on raw milk. It is known that Lebanon is prohibited from exporting milk and cheese to Europe due to the inability to examine drug deposits in it, and the results revealed that 96 percent of the samples did not conform to the specifications.
But what is the solution to this reality?
The advice that Kassem stresses is to inspect the product, which may be an expensive process, but it is still better than losing all the effort in issuing an incorrect shipment. Accordingly, we recommend examining the raw materials and the product before exporting it to ensure its safety.
What is this article?
In scientific discourse, this putrid substance is well known, and its name is “aflatoxin”. Dr. Amira Haddara, a researcher in food technology and industry and a lecturer at the Lebanese University, explains in a previous interview with An-Nahar, “It is one of the very harmful toxic compounds. Studies and research conducted to date say that the largest percentage of aflatoxin is found in nuts, especially pistachios.” And peanuts.”
And he warns that “the danger in both cases is that they are contaminated with the most dangerous” aflatoxin B1″, as this substance would expose people to cancer, through its destruction of human DNA, in addition to causing diseases of the heart and blood vessels, immunodeficiency, the digestive system and stunted growth in children. children”.
The method of preserving nuts and other grains, especially wheat, is one of the most important issues that Hadara stresses, “so that care must be taken to protect them from moisture,” and to secure an appropriate environment that prevents “aflatoxin” and its multiplication. And she warns that “selling nuts exposed on the road would secure the appropriate environment for the reproduction of this rotten substance, to provide it with warmth due to the sun’s rays, as well as humidity. How about if the humidity is doubled?” Reducing the growth of this mold requires, in her words, “a dry environment, with a bit of coolness.”
For his part, the head of the Consumer Protection Association, Zuhair Berro, does not hide that “what is recorded in the food safety file is not surprising or new. Today, the state is almost non-existent, and the absence of oversight increases the size of the crisis. We are facing a comprehensive deficit, and the issue of food safety cannot be overlooked because it is a matter of health.” Citizens and their safety.Despite the issuance of the food safety law, it has not been implemented for 8 years, we are facing real health risks, and the more poverty increases, the worse the health situation will be.”
He believed that “the phenomena that are spreading in the country are now present in abundance, so that some expired materials are manipulated and sold in the markets without accountability or censorship. Noting that the substance “aflatoxin” is present in most grains, spices and nuts (the worst of which is pistachios) and multiplies more in Poor storage conditions. Most of the existing goods are unhealthy or are recycled and fed to the Lebanese, and no one knows how safe the goods are in the market.”
It remains to be known that what is being seized and announced is much less than what is on the ground. We need to intensify awareness and emphasize monitoring, because food safety in Lebanon is in serious trouble in light of the chaos and lack of accountability.