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Absence of competent authorities and food control systems northern Syria

A civil defense officer holding a poisoned child in the countryside of Idlib 2020 (Syria Civil Defence known as White Helmets)

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Zeynep Masri | Saleh Malass | Abdullah al-Khateeb

Three days after eating a meal at a restaurant in the “Turkish market” in Azaz city, in the northern west of Aleppo, one of the residents filed a complaint of food poisoning, from eating “a spoiled hamburger”, to the “Control and Supply Department” operating in the city.

For its part, the department sent a patrol for quality control to inspect food storage methods “entirely”, which also checked food conditions, the used artificial food coloring and the other materials. Meantime, the department confirmed to Enab Baladi through its director, Fadel Kno, the restaurant’s facilities cleanness while it did not violate any of the requirements of food hygiene, and confirmed its workers’ commitment to health and hygiene conditions.

However, about six months ago, the same patrol documented a number of poisoning cases of children, who bought “expired” potato chips from a grocery store in the city. As a result, the department closed the shop and issued a judicial regulation against its owner which led to the latter’s imprisonment and fined him to pay treatment costs of those affected.

How food control departments conduct their work in northern Syria differs from one department to another, where in some cases these divisions rely on other associations and organizations to monitor food poisoning cases in the region. Consequently, most cases remain undocumented.

In this investigation, Enab Baladi sheds light on the repeated food poisoning cases in northern west Syria, which includes both Idlib and its countryside held by the “Salvation Government” (SG), and the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo under the control of the “Syrian interim government” (SIG). Enab Baladi also discusses the used criteria to detect outdated and spoiled food items. Additionally, to determining the governmental actors in those areas and their role to implement food quality control mechanisms.

Absence of official figures

”Expired” meals consumed by IDPs without food control

There are no official records or statistics about the number of food poisoning cases from both health and watchdog agencies operating in the region, which are substituted by numbers documented by media outlets or other entities.

Enab Baladi had contacted both “Syria Civil Defence” (SCD) and health directorates operating in Idlib governorate to ask them about the numbers of documented food poisoning cases in the region. Both directorates denied documenting any, taking into account that the “health directorate” lacks competence to control food in the governorate according to statements by its department officer, Safwat Shaikhouni.

Last Ramadan witnessed a raise in the number of food poisoning cases documented by local organizations, where Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), living in Idlib countryside camps, had the biggest share.

For his part, the director of “Syria Response Coordinators team”, Muhammad al-Hallaj, told Enab Baladi that the team documented an estimated of 127 cases of food poisoning due to the consumption of ready-made meals distributed by “Sham Sharif Association” in three camps in Idlib countryside; “al-Mukhtar” camp in Killi town, “Sham Sharif” camp in Kah village, and “Childhood Care” camp near Deir Hassan village.

Social media users and local media outlets quoted a statement by the association issued last Ramadan, saying that it has distributed more than 2200 fast breaking meals in eight camps. The association added that these meals “complied with the highest quality and hygiene standards”. Meantime, same sources talked about the association faulting residents of one of the camps for spreading rumors of food poisoning cases after attacking its team because it did not “distribute grilled meat and Levantine pie-like dish known it the colloquial by “sfihah”.

To verify these information and to learn more about the details surrounding these poisoning incidents in the aforementioned three camps, Enab Baladi tried to contact three different bodies affiliated to “Sham Sharif Association”;however, no one responded to our inquiries by press time.

Yet, activists, whose relatives were said to suffer from food poisoning” quoted them by saying that “the association sends them meals regularly, and this is the first time to record food poisoning cases among IDPs.”

A child in his father’s arms while heading to the emergency room after eating spoiled food distributed by one of the charitable organization in the Child Care Camp northern Idlib-11 May, 2020 (Enab Baladi).

Border crossings with Turkey

first stations of food control

There is supposed to be competent bodies for food control cooperating with other agencies to oversight food items at the places of import, their distribution, sorting as well as selling or delivery outlets, before reaching consumers.

Official border crossings connecting Syrian northwestern regions with Turkey, play major roles in seizing harmful foodstuffs coming from Turkey, through them, to finally reach shops inside these areas.

In its turn, Enab Baladi had contacted officials in both “Bab al-Hawa” border crossing, northern Idlib, and “Bab al-Salameh” crossing located northern Aleppo to understand how they operate taking into account their role in key food trading in the region.

“Bab al-Hawa”: food requirements

The head of media office of “Bab al-Hawa” connecting Idlib governorate with Turkey, Mazen Aloush, talked to Enab Baladi about supply and control mechanisms followed by his administration to check foodstuff.

Ready-made meals are not allowed to get through the crossing from Turkey, while an “integrated team” inspects all foodstuff and pharmaceuticals products in the Quarantine and Agricultural Center affiliated to the crossing. The team takes samples to be checked in laboratories and allows only goods which comply with “the approved requirements”

Last May, the team has collected more than 46 thousand and 493 samples, while the number of collected samples reached 35 thousand and 143 last June and included three different types: agricultural, veterinary and quarantine items.

When it comes to pharmaceuticals, Alouch confirmed that they are checked in the Drugs Control Department in Idlib governorate to be allow through the crossing later if they comply with the adopted requirements.

However, if this was not the case, merchants (owners) have two choices either to take their goods back to Turkey or they will be destroyed by the crossing personnel who conducted this procedure several times, according to Alouch.

“Bab al-Salameh”: controlling within the available capabilities

The assistant of the General Customs’ director in the “Syrian interim government” (SIG), who is also the director of the “Bab al-Salameh” border crossing, which connects the northern countryside of Aleppo with Turkey, Qassim Qassim talked to Enab Baladi about the mechanisms adopted to control foodstuff entering through the crossing. He said that a study is underway to establish a laboratory with good descriptions to control and inspect foodstuff entering Syria.

Qassim added that the crossing has contacted international bodies (which he did not specify) for more than four years now, in order to establish a central laboratory with “advanced” capabilities for all directorates and crossings and also to help local councils or universities conduct food and health analysis in these areas.

Qassim added that these bodies have confirmed to the crossing’s administration on 1st of the current month, the availability of a supportive organization which agreed to fund the laboratory’s establishment. In case the deal was sealed, the laboratory would contribute “significantly” in the process of food control.

Now, the crossing has 12 employees namely specialists and certified experts including a customs investigator, a laboratory worker, an agricultural engineer, a chemical engineer, a veterinarian, a pharmacist, a mechanic, as well as their aides, to control food expiration dates.

These specialists check anything going through the crossing starting by drugs or any other material, in case they suspected something, the team refers these goods immediately to the laboratory to conduct analyses, either in the Turkish state of Gaziantep, or in a laboratory affiliated to the University of “Idlib”.

An ambulance carrying poisoned patients as a result of eating spoiled food provided by a charity in the Child Care Camp northern Idlib – 11 May 2020 (Enab Baladi).

Customs code

According to Qassim the crossing operates according to the provisions of law issued by the “General Directorate of Customs” for all its affiliated border crossings. The said law stipulates that any item should have a six-month-period before its expiration date to be allowed to go through the crossing. Such measures are undertaken to prevent authorized merchants from buying foodstuff with an expiration date less than a month or two at cheap prices and sell them later in the markets of these areas.

The entry of ground or minced meat is also denied because it is hard to determine its source, along with frozen meat due to the frequent power outages on refrigerators in merchants’ warehouses. This goes for any other material “harmful” to public health.

When it comes to the adopted criteria to determine goods’ quality, Qassim said that any foodstuff must have a certificate of origin and a health certificate provided by the shipper. He also pointed out that there is a kind of “contentment” concerning the materials coming from Turkey because they meet these requirements.

However, according to him, problems are raised by some Syrian merchants who import materials from other countries other than Turkey, where both the certificate of origin and the health certificate might be forged.

Therefore, specialists in “Bab al-Salameh” crossing use different methods to check and analyze all foodstuff such as frying eggs, melting ghee to examine them in terms of taste and appearance and analyze their color and scent.

But the problem, as he put it, is formed by some Syrian merchants who import transit materials from countries other than Turkey, and the certificate of origin or health certificate may be forged.

The crossing does not have places to store goods and products in “Bab al-Salameh” according to Qassim, since the crossing large warehouses were cancelled to make room for 20 thousand Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in the crossing yards.

Consequently, they seize only material they have doubts about their quality, later customs personal escort the merchant in question to Azaz city and put his goods in his own warehouse.

After being quarantined for a while, merchants are not allowed to sell their goods or dispose of them until receiving results from the laboratory. Later, a committee checks these merchants’ warehouses to ensure they did not sell these materials until making sure they are safe. These measures are undertaken for infant formula, pharmaceuticals and foodstuff.

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Dispersed control

Amid an absence of a unified control mechanism northern Syria

The Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection is the authority responsible for food control and its application on food products and commodities, according to Law “No. 14” of 2015 issued regarding internal trade and consumer protection.

The provisions of this law are not applicable in opposition held-areas northern west Syria, amid the absence of alternative regulations that can unify work mechanisms adopted by competent authorities in food control sector and enhance cooperation between these entities.

There are several “food control departments” directly affiliated to local councils in the northern countryside of Aleppo where “SIG” operates, whereas the “Salvation Government” takes control in Idlib, based on observations and interviews conducted by Enab Baladi with grocery shops owners in the region.

A child in his father’s arms while heading to the emergency room after eating spoiled food distributed by one of the charitable organization in the Child Care Camp northern Idlib -11 May, 2020 (Enab Baladi).

in the northern countryside of Aleppo

No ministerial authority…local council’s act

The “Syrian interim government” (SIG) does not have yet a ministerial body responsible food control and supply, according to statement by the minister of finance and economy in the “SIG”, Abdel Hakim al-Masri.

In every local council, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, there is a supply department which, according to al-Masri, is responsible for making sure of food safety in the region, when being prepared or eaten depending on the intended use.

In his talk to Enab Baladi, al-Masri said that these supply departments are supposed to be affiliated to one of the “SIG” ministries, with the aim to meet people’s needs and ensure their safety while using foodstuff. In addition to enabling them obtain the correct information and guidance on everything related to food products.

Al-Masri said, that amid the absence of a ministry specialized in food control in the “SIG”, it was up to local councils to form “supply and control departments”. These departments are directly affiliated to their local councils which in their turn affiliated to the ministry of local administration and services in the “SIG” government”. However, there is an absence of unified central control for all these departments.

Monotony in food control mechanism

Nader al-Ahmed, a student in Aleppo University and one of al-Bab residents, complained about the absence of food control on daily consume products by “competent departments” affiliated to the local council there. He also talked about the lack of control on pharmaceuticals in pharmacies of the region.

Nader added that some grocery stores sell consumers expired goods and canned food for a year or so, this aroused his amazement about how groceries are still buying these food products with their prior knowledge.

Sometimes, grocery shops in al-Bab city and its countryside do not adhere to the adopted requirements, this comes in conjunction with lack of power needed to preserve some foodstuff such as meat, cheese and dairy products. However, most residents buy these products with or without their prior knowledge of “being defrauded when it comes to standards” by some grocery stores.

With the beginning of every month, the “Control and Supply Department” affiliated to the local council in al-Bab city inspect expiry dates of most of foodstuff, according to Ghazal Hammadi, a wholesaler from the city who owns a warehouse. Hammadi told Enab Baladi these patrols inspect everything stored in warehouses.

Ghazal Hammadi considers this monotony, while inspecting commodities and their expiration dates, a weakness in the food control process, because the interested authorities do not change their inspection schedules to assess merchants’ adherence to regulations and standards which make foodstuff suitable for human consumption. He explained that such monotony gives merchants the opportunity to hide food products which do not comply with food safety requirements.

Enab Baladi has tried to contact “Control and Supply Department” affiliated to local council of al-Bab city to give answers about these complaints and remarks; however, no one responded to our inquiries by press time.

“Weak” role enhances negligence

According to what Enab Baladi has monitored in an opinion poll among residents, some of them are not even aware of the existence of a “Control and Supply Department” affiliated to the local council. This is mainly due to its “weak” role in preventing buying “expired” foodstuff by residents in the region without making sure of the product validity, according to Muhannad al-Halabi, a grocery shop owner who sells canned products in al-Bab city.

In conjunction with these complaints and remarks, the local council in al-Bab city has published through its “Facebook” page video recordings of field trips conducted by “the Control and Supply Department” affiliated to the council. The videos showed the said department inspecting restaurants and grocery stores and checking foodstuff expiry dates.”

The director of the “Control and Supply Department” in Azaz city, Fadel Kno, has denied neglecting awareness-raising campaigns, while pointing out to the establishment of training workshops by the “Control and Supply Department” of the local council in Azaz city. These campaigns are usually conducted for the benefits of other competent departments in the process of food control, “to enable them complete their tasks to the fullest and fill the gaps in this process.”

The department is also trying “to promote the culture of checking out expiry dates among shop owners selling food commodities on the one hand, as well as promoting the culture of holding merchants accountable front of residents of the region on the other hand.”

How does the “Control Department” describe its work?

Control and supply mechanisms in the northern countryside of Aleppo are similar to those adopted in Azaz city according to what the director of “Control and Supply Department”, Fadel Kno said to Enab Baladi. He explained that “follow ups on food are conducted on a daily basis” on warehouses and wholesale cars, in addition to setting up roadblocks on the main roads in the northern countryside of Aleppo to inspect foodstuff expiry dates and see if these products are suitable for human consumption.

In case the “Control and Supply Department” found any spoiled material, it would confiscate it and issue regulation against violators, according to Kno. There are different types of regulations; those issued for expired foodstuff and other issued against spoiled items used in food industry or poor storage.

According to what have been said by Kno, the “Control and Supply Department” receives many complaints on a monthly basis about food poisoning cases, either through contacting the local council of Azaz city through its official “Facebook” page or through heading to the council’s headquarters in the city.

As for complaints of poisoning cases through restaurants or grocery shops, the patient should prove their case through a medical report, then a sample is collected from food they have consumed in these restaurants and grocery shops to analyze them in medical laboratories inside the Turkish soil, because local councils in the northern countryside of Aleppo lacks specialized laboratories to examine these foodstuff suspected of being unsuitable for human consumption.

“Control and Supply departments” in the northern countryside of Aleppo is responsible for checking food products of all kinds and ensuring their safety for human consumption. These departments are also responsible for urging merchants and wholesalers to comply with food requirements determine by these departments in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

The department is also responsible for determining the necessary tools to prevent tampering with the prices of daily consumer products, by setting fixed prices and a specific currency through publishing unified prices and monitoring receipts of grocery shops sells.

A poisoned patient heading to the emergency room as a result of eating spoiled food provided by a charitable organization in the Childhood Care Camp northern Idlib – 11 May 2020 (Enab Baladi) 

In Idlib

A Responsible government directorate…but

Unlike the northern countryside of Aleppo, the “General Directorate of Trade and Supply” in Idlib city as well as its northern countryside of Idlib are directly affiliated to the ministry of economy and resources in the “salvation government” (SG), according to the director of trade and supply in (SG), Khaled al-Khider. He added that “inspecting the expiry dates of foodstuff is one of the main tasks of the directorate.”

The directorate focuses on inspecting canned food, meat and legumes, while anything without an expedition and expiry date is considered a violation. Consequently, merchants are fined according to al-Khider.

The “SG” conducts tours through its “Control and Supply Departments” between industrial and production facilities and warehouses of imports to control food and define the proper methods to store them and introduce them to consumers.

Contrary to al-Khider statements, Mahmoud Qattash, a grocery shop’s owner in Kafr Arouq village, told Enab Baladi, that “no one showed up” to check products’ expiry dates or even to verify commodities prices.

Samer Abboud, owns a restaurant of broiled and grilled food in the city of Idlib, told Enab Baladi that he tries to preserve his meat and poultry products through refrigerators; however, the frequent power outages in the area during the day prevent him from doing so. Consequently, make it prone to be perishable especially after getting frozen again by other merchants.

Samer Abboud buys his goods from one of the slaughterhouses in Ma’arrat Misrin northern Idlib city, but he has no knowledge of their responsible entities on these slaughterhouses or if they get inspected or controlled.

To solve the problem of frequent power outages in Idlib, Bahjat al-Hassan, an owner of a raw chicken shop in Idlib, uses solar energy to operate refrigerators to guarantee keeping his poultry cold, which buys from Ma’arrat Misrin slaughterhouses.

Consequently, Bahjat relies on his capabilities to control his goods, according to what he confirmed to Enab Baladi, in case a specialized department showed up on his doorstep “the only question would be about products pricing either in (TRY) Turkish or (SYP) Syrian Pounds.”

In its turn, Trade and Supply Directorate said that it issued “dozens of regulations for confiscating expired items” according to its director Khaled al-Khider, while taking residents’ complaints into consideration about certain restaurants, commodity stores to see whether their products are suitable for human consumption or not.

while listening to complaints from people of the city of the right to takeaway restaurants and commodity stores, regarding the viability of the food product for human consumption.

Food controlling teams during their tour in Idlib- 30 June 2020 (al-Sham news agency)

Far from the governmental role…

Universally adopted mechanisms to detect food spoilage

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines a food control system by a system which ensures that food available within a country is safe, wholesome and fit for human consumption, conforms to food safety and quality requirements.

Degree of control

According to “FAO”, the competent authorities work under the food control system to help ensure food safety and quality and manage food safety hazards, fraud issues, emerging risks and emergencies.

This work includes oversight and inspection of Food Business Operators (FBOs), information collection processes that contribute to a better understanding of the food chain; and programmes aimed at preparing for and managing food safety emergencies.

Amid the absence of official Syrian laws related to food control systems in northern west Syria, engineer in food microbiology, Abdel Qader al-Harraq, suggests adopting universally recognized detection mechanisms in these areas.

Control indicators

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Harraq said certain indicators are set to control food products and there are critical control points whether in factories or at distribution centers or even near grocery stores or markets. All food products must be inspected because they are all suitable environment for suitable for bacteria and yeasts and fungi growth.

The engineer emphasized on the necessity of controlling “strictly” raw basic materials, which are not exposed to high temperatures to be preserved like dairies and cheese, in addition to material which can constitute a suitable environment for toxic bacteria growth such as meat.

According to al-Harraq, manufactured materials should be controlled too because preservatives constitute a part of their composition. He explained that sometimes preservatives help hide defects of the product such as sulfur dioxide gas use in limited portions. The use of this substance was banned in many different countries, along with “formaldehyde” which also hides several defects in food products, where only two drops of it, are enough to hide defects in one hundred kilograms of milk even it is already spoiled.

As for semi-dry products, they do not get affected easily such as rice, bulgur and nuts. However, products such as pistachios and sunflower seeds, which contain a high percentage of fat, could be a suitable environment for aflatoxin fungi growth, which is hard to decompose by heat.

Meantime, high-fat products such as ghee and oil, are rarely affected; yet, sometimes they could be a suitable environment for “butyric acid” which causes poisoning. Consequently, they should be controlled as well.

Controlling food spoilage is an achievement

According to al-Harraq, mechanisms for detecting foods and cans spoilage are classified into easy and complicated ones.

Generally speaking, food products can be divided into three main categories: acidic substances, with low pH, which have a low risk of spoilage. The second type,  are substances with medium levels of acidity, in this case spoilage is medium as well. When it comes to alkaline food, levels of spoilage are either minor or rare.

There are two substances which can directly lead to quick spoilage of food, the first one is linked to levels of acidity in the product, while the second one has to do with the amount of water in food products. Additionally, to several external factors such as temperature, the percentage of oxygen or oxidation, as well as the different factors this product was exposed before reaching the consumer.

Al-Harraq insisted that “high levels of spoilage” should be controlled in warzones and areas of conflicts, such as northwestern Syria because it can cause diseases which may lead to death, or “food poisoning” which also leads to death. Al-Harraq considered controlling high levels of spoilage in wartimes “an accomplishment.”

He pointed out to the need to take into account food spoilage indicators through which one can assess food products. He also insisted on the necessity of conducting analysis to detect if a product is contaminated and make sure it is safe for human consumption. Al-Harraq explained that through tests and analysis, it is possible to have a clear idea about the manufacturing processes the product went through, and determine the type of spoilage in it whether bacterial or viral.

A man and a woman holding their sons, next to them sit poisoned children in an ambulance as a result of eating spoiled food provided by a charitable organization in a Childhood Care Camp in northern Idlib – 11 May 2020 (Enab Baladi)

Mechanisms to detect food spoilage

Batool Sheikh Tarab, who is a nutrition engineer, talked to Enab Baladi about the correct and easy ways to detect spoiled food, and classified them according to certain variables such as  the color of food, it’s texture, odor, as well the used spices.

According to Batool, spoiled food can be known through its color such as starches, as their color changes to become darker. Meanwhile, meat and poultry, their color changes gradually from pink to bright red to finally become gray.

Starches also change the texture of spoiled food and become very viscous, they also have an acidic odor. Food odor is one of the most important factors that must be monitored, as the smell of spoiled food is a pungent mixed with a rotten or an acidic smell.

Most restaurants use salt and other spices, because of their strong odor, which covers food defects which gives it a good taste instead.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning occurs as a result of eating spoiled or contaminated foodstuffs, accompanied by fluctuations in core body temperature and digestive problems, such as nausea and vomiting either spontaneously or incited by the patient to feel comfortable and stomach pain free. In addition to watery and smelly diarrhea which may vary from one person to another and frequent stomach pain.

In an interview with Balab Baladi, internal medicine physician Dr. Hussein Sourani distinguished between food poisoning and food intolerance.

Sourani defined food intolerance as a disorder that affects a person within a group of people who ate the same food or drink, which means that this person’s intestines or stomach did not tolerate food, so he was affected alone. While he defined food poisoning as an illness caused by eating or drinking contaminated foodstuff. 

Food poisoning is treated according with the patient’s conditions. In the case of an illness with a good general health condition accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting, the patient can be treated at home. However, in severe cases, patients are treated with antiemetic drugs to mitigate defecation movement and stop diarrhea and compensate fluids losses.

As for patients who suffer from a general weakness, most probably because of dehydration caused by frequent vomiting and diarrhea, these patients may undergo acid and alkaline changes. Consequently, they are treated in hospitals by intravenously replacing fluids because it is difficult to used oral treatments due to their severe conditions.

Sourani advised to avoid eating in public places and stay away from exposed food, especially with the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). He also recommended paying attention to the cleanliness of places from which food is bought.

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