By Khalaf Khalaf
Ramallah, West Bank,
(Al-Hayat al-Jadida), March 2015 – After suffering stomach pain and nausea from eating expired chocolate in Salfit, Sohair Dhiab, 35, began to constantly check the expiry date of the food products she buys.
Like Dhiab, other consumers spoke to this reporter about similar cases of food poisoning from expired products that apparently contain bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungus, and chemical substances found in tested food samples.
But hundreds of food poisoning cases go unreported because most of the affected are treated at home with painkillers and natural herbs, according to residents, doctors, and Health Ministry officials.
Firyal Yousef, 45, from the town of Deir Istiya, says that she ate candy she bought from a shop in Ramallah one day in January 2014. When she got home, she felt sharp pain in the stomach and vomited a few times.
Food poisoning cases are on the rise due to a shortage of Health Ministry inspectors: There are 100 inspectors for every 50,000 licensed establishments. Some of these shops are subjected to annual inspections and while restaurants, food outlets, and food factories are inspected regularly. After a year-long investigation, this reporter found conflicting responsibilities and tasks among the supervisory and licensing parties, shortage of financial and logistical capabilities in the Market Regulatory Committee, lack of coordination among the committee’s branches, and a variety of legal references caused by gaps in the Penal Code. Furthermore, paralyzed mechanisms to enact or amend laws — due to the disruption of the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) since 2006 — allowed the flow of tons of spoiled food into the markets. This has led to at least 500 cases of food poisoning recorded annually, according to doctors and Palestinian Health Ministry statistics in Ramallah.
Despite hundreds of complaints, the Palestinian courts looked into 210 cases related to spoiled food products between 1996 and 2014. Of that, there have been 37 acquittals – 18% of all relevant court cases.
Moreover, 42 percent of the court rulings on spoiled food included fines ranging from JD 10 to JD 1,000 ($14 to $1,400).
Table 1: Rulings by West Bank courts on spoiled food cases between 1996 and 2014 (210 cases)
|Number of Rulings
||Fine: JD 10 to JD 100
||Fine: JD 100 to JD 1,000
||Fine: JD 1,000 to JD 5,000
||Fine: JD 5,000 to JD 10,000
||Prison Term: 1 month
||Prison Term: 2 months
||Prison Term: 3 months
||Prison Term: 6 months
||Prison Term: 1 year
||Charges dropped due to statutes of limitation
||Referred to prosecution due to lack of jurisdiction
Legal counsel Bilal al-Barghouthi says that the judges apply the minimum penalty because “the text of some laws contradict each other and lack legislative harmony; thus, there are various legal provisions governing a single case”.
He adds that “although the 2005 Consumer Protection Law turned the penalty into a “crime”, the concerned parties, especially the general prosecution, refer to constitutional gaps in the executive list of this law, which does not define terms such as “expired”, or “corrupted” or “spoiled.'”
Al-Barghouthi continues to say: “Therefore, the judges apply the 1960 Jordanian Penal Code, which addresses corrupt food and drugs as a simple ‘misdemeanor’ and allows replacing many penalties with fines.”
The courts apply three laws related to spoiled food: The 2004 Public Health Law, the 2005 Consumer Protection Law, and the 1960 Jordanian Penal Law. The consumer and health laws mplicitly negate all that contradicts their provisions. In other words, every law negates the provisions that contradict other laws without explicitly identifying these provisions. Accordingly, the judiciary has the right to choose the provisions upon its discretion.
The penalty in the 1960 Jordanian Penal Code stipulates a prison term of one month to one year and/or a fine of JD 5 to JD 50 ($7 to $70).
The 2004 Health Law’s penalty is a maximum prison term of two years and/or a maximum fine of JD 2,000 ($2,825); prison is mandatory if the offense resulted in death or heavy financial damages. The penalty is doubled if it is a repeated offense.
Articles 78, 79, and 80 of the 2003 Agricultural Law stipulate the maximum penalty at one year in prison and a maximum fine of JD 1,000 ($1,400).
The 2005 Consumer Protection Law sets the maximum penalty at a prison term of 10 years and/or a fine of JD 10,000 ($14,000) or equivalent.
The Public Health Law and Jordanian Penal Code also handle the cases as misdemeanors, not crimes. Even the Consumer Protection Law, which considers them crimes, sets the maximum penalty at 10 years in prison; however, the provisions of the same law — if applied — do not specify a minimum penalty.
The rulings issued by the West Bank courts from 1996 to October 2014 show that not a single maximum 10-year prison sentence was ever imposed. In addition, the data, obtained from the Supreme Judicial Council, shows that one in every 10 cases was dropped due to statutes of limitation caused by lengthy trials.
The main thread of this investigation was the contradictory statements by officials who were trading blame, reinforcing the assumption that there is something wrong in the performance of the supervisory and licensing parties and their coordination with each other.
The Market Regulatory Committee is responsible for combating spoiled food in the domestic markets. Its members include nine parties: The ministries of economy (consumer protection), health, and agriculture, customs, consumer protection societies, the food industrial federation, chambers of commerce, and the public safety and economic security committees in the Preventive Security Services.
Table 2: Number of field inspectors in the core institutions of the Market Regulatory Commission
||Economy Ministry (Consumer Protection)
||Approximately 16 veterinarians
The records of the Industry Ministry’s Consumer Protection Department indicate that its 80 inspectors visited 76,772 establishments in 2011. This was cut down by nearly half the following year with 39,881 establishments and 34,367 in 2013.
On the reason for the decline in the number of inspection visits, according to Consumer Protection Department Director Engineer Ibrahim al-Qadi, is that these records contain the number of inspection visits rather than the number of establishments. In other words, a single establishment may be inspected four times; thus, four visits are recorded in the statistics.
Al-Qadi adds: “We need at least 26 more electric and mechanical engineers to cover new places that the Consumer Protection Department has started to visit, noting that the majority of the department’s engineers are currently chemists and biologists.”
Table 3: Establishments and shops selling food and tobacco in the West Bank, according to the Statistics Agency, 2013
||Number of shops
|Retail in specialized stores
|Retail in kiosks and markets
The shortage in human resources — 60 inspectors and 20 administrators — is reflected in the ratio of inspectors to the number of commercial outlets. If we exclude weekends and annual holidays, a single inspector works 200 days per year. The number of outlets visited and number of inspectors in 2011 indicates that each team of two inspectors visits 13 locations a day.
Similarly, the Health Ministry’s inspectors visit thousands of establishments per year, including factories, swimming pools, food companies, restaurants, hotels, medical centers, and hospitals. Accomplishing these tasks requires increasing the number of field inspectors to 100-120, according to Engineer Ibrahim Atiyah, director of the environmental health at the Health Ministry. A total of 18 new inspectors will be hired in the next two to three weeks, adding that this would be enough.
This reporter documented — through interviews and field visits — that the inspection authorities lack modern laboratories and advanced means of communication. The Consumer Protection Department, according to its director Al-Qadi, has to send some of the seized products to Jordan for analysis. The inspectors, who also lack unified communication means, use their private mobile phones, not to mention the lack of transportation. For example, the Consumer Protection Department in the governorate of Toubass and until September 2014 had no car for its inspectors since its establishment 10 years ago.
Opponent Is Judge
In 2012, the Palestinian Consumer Protection Department referred 96 merchants to the prosecution for violating the Consumer Protection Law (spoiled food, hidden prices, fraud and counterfeit as well as selling products from the settlements). In 2013, the same department referred 120 merchants and 93 more from early 2014 until the end of August 2014. In 2012, the economic crimes prosecution registered 353 cases related to consumer protection and 256 in 2013.
Najat Bureiki, chief economic crimes prosecutor, says that the Public Safety Commission’s inspection teams need development and training to identify their legal powers and tasks.
She says: “Instead of referring cases to us, the inspection teams grant the offenders chances and warnings.”
According to the 2010 procedure index of Consumer Protection inspectors, “the inspectors may issue a notice to merchants to rectify their status if a secondary offense is found in line with the Consumer Protection Law and other relevant legislation. A deadline must be given for rectification”.
Bureiki says: “The Consumer Protection Law excludes any reference backing the so-called notices, while the role of the supervisory parties is only confined to confiscation and precautionary measures. It cannot be an opponent and judge at the same time.”
Difficulty of Proof
Meanwhile, Judge Raed Assaf complains about conflicting penal codes, saying that the same act penalized by the Public Health Law of 2004 is included in the Consumer Protection Law 21 of 2005 under a different penalty.
Bureiki says that “this is a legislative problem that must be addressed.”
But the PLC has been paralyzed for years because of political disputes between Fatah and Hamas; therefore, it is not possible to enact or amend laws at this time.
Engineer Al-Qadi, head of the Consumer Protection Department, calls for establishing specialized courts to look into economic crimes or allocating specific days for such crimes.
Many Poisoning Cases … But
Table 4: Registered cases of food poisoning in the West Bank, according to the Health Ministry
The food poisoning cases documented in the Health Ministry’s records remain relatively lower compared to the confiscated amount of spoiled food.
Dr. Asaad al-Ramlawi, director of primary care at the Health Ministry, says: “There are much more actual cases of food poisoning because the official records entail those formally reported or poisoning that required hospital admission. But patients who went to private doctors or clinics, or government clinics, with intestinal infections and diarrhea, have not been investigated to determine whether they were suffering from to food poisoning.”
Amount of Spoiled Food
Table 5: Seized products unfit for human consumption in the West Bank
||Consumer Protection Department
||4,918.19 tons (without 2011)
Bringing spoiled food products into the West Bank markets is possible for anyone with smuggling skills, but interviewing smugglers is impossible. No one admits to smuggling, even if they are implicated or convicted.
This reporter contacted a company in the governorate of Nablus, in which 16 tons of spoiled products were seized from one of its stores. Upon calling the company owner, a person on the other side of the phone said: “The company owner is out of the country and will return in two weeks.” (It turned out that the company owner was detained pending the investigation.)
The speaker on the end of the line was the brother of the company’s owner, who first denied the charge and later explained that some of the seized products were stored for the purpose of disposal. He added that part of the confiscated supplies was imported from Malaysia and passed Israeli inspection.
An official source at the Health Ministry says that the company’s confiscated products entered the West Bank illegally.
Meanwhile, primary health care director Al-Ramlawi says: “Legally speaking, bringing in or importing products, is not allowed before obtaining a certificate of origin.” But he explained that there are other ways, such as indirectly importing from Israel, which does not carry out the required inspections for Palestinian products.
Lieutenant Colonel Nidal Abu Saeed, director of communications and development at the Customs Control, says: “The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) lack of control over the border crossings because of the Israeli occupation. This facilitates the smuggling of spoiled products into the West Bank. Palestinian merchants buy expired or spoiled products from Israeli merchants and bring them into the West Bank border towns that are not completely under Palestinian security control.”
He adds: “The spoiled products and food may be transported to bigger cities through various means, including private cars in order not to raise suspicion or through unofficial off-roads. After the smuggled or spoiled products enter the markets, they become difficult to seize except through field inspections.”
Abu Saeed says that the settlements that spread across the West Bank “obstruct the tasks of customs officers, who cannot move outside the cities in their official uniform without prior coordination with the Israeli liaisons while seizing smuggled goods mostly needs fast action.”
However, this does not absolve the supervisory parties from their responsibilities, according to Iyad Anabtawi, director of the Consumer Protection Society in Nablus, who calls on Customs Control to exert more effort by setting up permanent checkpoints at city entrances.
Abu Saeed replies: “Those bringing in spoiled products always find ways to do so, considering the various entrances into the cities, the off-roads, the inability of the PA to extend its control on all the areas, and the scattered settlements.”
He adds: “Our work mostly depends on prior information from our trained representatives and the complaints by citizens”. Customs officers deal with informants, including some who get paid for information on smuggling or distribution of spoiled products.
Nevertheless, it seems that smuggling is easy. A company owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, recalls that a merchant called him with an offer to sell him oil at half price. After obtaining a sample, he noticed that the product was from his company, but it was spoiled.
He explains: “I had sold the products to a foreign company to send to Gaza, but they were stranded for a long time on the Erez crossing. The sun ruined the products and it seems that the company gave it up to an Israeli merchant, who in turn sold it to a Palestinian merchant.”
Circumventing the Law
The Supply Minister issued Decree 1 of 2003 banning the entry of supplies older than one-third of their validity and fitness for human consumption and half if directly imported. The decree is related to imported goods and does not include the products in the market. Therefore, merchants import food (from and via Israel) that is on the verge of expiry.
The authorities cannot collect the products once they are smuggled into the West Bank markets. Bashar al-Saifi, head of the Economy Ministry’s directorate in Nablus, says: “Once they enter the market, we cannot prevent their distribution or collect them because they have not yet expired, as evident in the offers you see on the shelves.”
During a tour in Nablus, this reporter observed a busy shop that has been selling food at low prices for years. Upon checking the products, most validity dates were on the verge of expiry, directly risking the life of consumers. The products would be already spoiled or could spoil soon after buying them, considering some of the dates on the products showed expiration after a month or even a few days.
Legislation Lags Behind the Crime
Bureiki, Chief Prosecutor for Economic Crimes, says: “The laws governing our work are very old, dating back to the 1960s in Jordan; such as the Penal Code, the Crafts and Industries Law, Intellectual Property Law, Customs Law, the regulating fees on local products, and so on. The laws issued during the PA era are flawed and, upon applying them, they lag behind the advanced economic crime.”
This leaves the door wide open and encourages fortune-seekers to gamble in this destructive trade. Weak legislation and failing to increase the penalties prompt some corrupt merchants to repeat their acts, such as M.B., whose spoiled products were seized. But it turns out that he barely spent 15 days in jail before he was released on bail.
Engineer Al-Qadi, director of Consumer Protection, says that this merchant was released despite his bad record. He says: “This merchant was arrested after his spoiled products were seized; a year earlier, the authorities seized his products that had only one day left before expiration.”
He continues: “Spoiled dates were seized from a merchant in Toubass; he was sentenced to three months in prison under the Jordanian Penal Code and the penalty was replaced with a fine. Less than two months after his release, the same merchant was caught trying to smuggle spoiled dates. As far as I know, he was released again.”
Cannot Be Penalized
In November 2013, spoiled meat and drugs were seized in a store near Ramallah and the suspect fled to Israel. Even if he were arrested, the occupation forces would interfere to release him.
Bureiki says: “The prosecution cannot arrest merchants with Israeli citizenship because the Israeli authorities interfere to release them.” She adds: “Our work is governed by the arbitrary measures of the occupation. Therefore, we put the country’s higher interests above all and release them under threats from the occupation, including invasion”.
On the number of merchants with Israeli identity cards released due to Israeli pressures, Bureiki says: “I cannot give a percentage or number because each district prosecution manages its own files and the issue needs a long time to collect and calculate; therefore, coming out with a specific number is difficult.”
A source at the Customs Department said that inspectors are frustrated by the release of merchants who hold “blue cards” [Israeli IDs].
Trials Take Years
Lawyer Al-Barghouthi says that the judiciary is accused of lenience when trial proceedings are not open to public opinion. But Judge Assaf denies these accusations and reveals a court case, referred on 8 April 2013, with eight prosecution witnesses who did not appear for the first three sessions grounds they were not summoned. He notes that it has been a year since the case went to trial and not all prosecution witnesses have been heard yet. If they were, the defense would say it has further evidence and request summoning certain witnesses.
Smaller Merchants Prosecuted
The case of a 70-year-old woman from Hebron remains pending in the judiciary since May 2013 after spoiled juice was seized in her small shop. The story began after 17 students in Beit Ummar School suffered sharp pains. Mousa Awad, a teacher, says that when he entered the classroom, the students were suffering from severe cramps. He says: “I asked them to show me the remains of the juice they drank and found it had expired nearly four months earlier.”
He indicates that the concerned authorities seized the remaining juice that the old, illiterate woman sold and she continues to go back and forth to the courts, although the big merchants wreak havoc in the country without accountability, as he put it.
* This investigation was conducted with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, ARIJ: www.arij.net, and coached by Benaz Batrawi.