Thursday, November 1, 2007


A few months ago, small milk producers in Lebanon, especially in the Bekaa, were happy because the increase in world milk prices meant that the local price of milk jumped from LBP 500 to LBP 850 (partly due to the decrease in subsidies on milk in the EU. Today, they are worse off than they were, because their feed stock have ended and they have to face the new reality: due to conversion to biofuel production, US corn (principal source of corn import in Lebanon) price has increased and feed costs now account for more than 65% of total milk production costs, according to this article in Al Safir. Prices of feed have typically increased by 300%, while milk wholesale prices have increased by less than 200%.

The latest crises pits (again) farmers against dairy production industrialists (a big word for a small to medium industry), with the government incapable of even playing the role of fair arbitre. They both agree that the Ministry of Economy and Trade, ably led by Sami Haddad (sorry Sam, i'm really trying not to point the finger at you with every post, but you're really not helping). Industrialists say that any further increase in milk prices will make them close shop, with all this implies on a sector that employs tens if not hundreds of thousands. The situation is worsened, they say, by the lack of control on milk imports into Lebanon. Milk producers point at an existing decree imposing 35% duty on imported milk, which is not being implemented by Lebanese customs. Farmers are asking for duties on imported milk, until the EU phases out its subsidies. Moreover, the quality of imported milk is apparently below health standards, and many factories import cheeses and repackage them for sale as Lebanese cheeses. I could not understand from the article what the origin of this cheese is.

The sanitary situation of the local Lebanese dairy products is frightening. While it is forbidden to sell en vrac, i.e. without container, much of the trade happens like that: dairy shops will fish cheese from a culture broth and place it for you in a plastic bag to take home. No way to know the content, the ingredients, the origin of what is sold. Same for labneh, sold in plastic boxes filled in the shop. Here's an excerpt from a recent article in L'Orient-Le Jour (October 24 I think, but I could not get to the page. Help if you can)

"SOCIÉTÉ - Seules cinq grandes usines locales se conforment aux standards d’hygiène et de sécurité alimentaire
Fromages et produits laitiers : les dangers d’une fabrication encore artisanale et archaïque
L'article de Anne-Marie EL-HAGE

Une importante partie des fromages et des produits laitiers localement fabriqués et vendus sur le marché libanais ne répond pas aux normes minimales d’hygiène, de salubrité et de sécurité alimentaires. Nombreux sont les produits qui montrent, à l’issue d’analyses bactériologiques, des traces plus ou moins importantes de salmonelle, de listéria, de staphylocoques et de coliformes (excréments humains), pouvant se répercuter plus ou moins sévèrement sur la santé des consommateurs."

Conforting news.

Farmers in the Bekaa point that the IFAD project for the milk collection centers (weirdly enough, the project is directly under the prime minister, not the ministry of agriculture) cost the taxpayer $2million (loan money), but did not achieve much. The struggle goes on between the milk producers and the industry, with the farmers trying to raise prices and the industrial cartelling to control them, using cheap imports (condoned by the government) to blackmail them. In all impunity.

You can imagine how popular this is making our beloved minister of economy and trade (that's it, I'm dropping the capital letters: they don't deserve them). His response has been to open the markets wider, hoping this will reduce food prices. Problem is, history is not on his side in a country without policy, and where the laws protect the "exclusive agents" of foreign companies who can sell at the prices they want. This is how the great famine of 1915-1918 made them so rich while half the population of Lebanon died or emigrated. Today, the labor unions and the farmers unions have accused haddad of financing his decisions with the blood of the poor. They have also accused him of protecting the monopolists and have threatened to engage in civil unrest.

For the past couple of years, government and specially the opposition have been engaging in civil unrest principally for sectarian reasons. Civil unrest for economic reasons: that would be the day.

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