BEIRUT: Consumer and media groups have observed large surges in food prices since the onset of Ramadan, with some major produce reportedly having shot up by 100 percent. The Economy Ministry has brushed off the reports, however, calling them “unscientific and arbitrary.”
“The reports are … widespread, while there is really nothing of what they are claiming,” head of the Consumer Protection Office at the Ministry Fouad Fleifel told The Daily Star.
The Muslim fasting month, which began Monday, is a time when Lebanese food markets normally witness major price hikes. Consumers are often known to stock up on food during the month, in anticipation of post-fasting festivities.
Consumer groups suspect that food importers exploit the situation by artificially inflating prices, pumping up profit margins while manipulating food supplies.
Lettuce prices are reported to have increased by 100 percent, from LL750 per kilogram to LL1,500 per kilogram in the last two days. Radish prices are said to have soared from LL250 per kilogram to LL2,000 per kilogram.
Potato prices have also shot up from LL350 per kilogram to around LL1,000 per kilogram. Tomatoes have seen a similar price rise. Fruit prices overall have risen by up to 70 percent.
The data has been compiled by consumer watchdog group Consumers Lebanon, as well as by various major media groups such as As-Safir, Al-Balad and Al-Liwa.
Price rises have occurred primarily in the vegetable sector, the groups report.
“Meat products are already so highly priced that traders can’t afford to push prices up any further,” said Mohammad Darwish, Secretary General of Consumers Lebanon.
Meat prices currently stand at around LL35,000 per kilo, after having undergone a number of price spikes over the last year. Traders have blamed climate change for the price rises, claiming that dwindling supplies brought on by unseasonably dry months were solely responsible for spiraling prices.
Consumer groups and labor unions dismissed the explanation. They claimed that traders tampered with supplies, by engaging in price-fixing agreements with competitors in that concentrated sector, resulting in pumped up profit margins.
The debate spurred the Economy Ministry under Mohammad Safadi and the Agriculture Ministry under Hussein Hajj Hasan to reactivate a profit-restricting law, first created in the 1970s.
According to the law, traders should not make more than an 8 percent profit margin.
But Consumers Lebanon, who say they have compared local market prices with international and local costs they have compiled, believe the profit margin is closer to 40 percent.
“The law isn’t being applied … I think that the Economy Ministry thinks the traders are stronger than they are,” said Darwish.
The Economy Ministry has denied that allegation. Fleifel claims that his office has dispatched 215 surveyors to the marketplace in order to crackdown on transgressors.
“I’m not saying the situation is perfect. But the violations are being controlled and reported to the Attorney General immediately,” said Fleifel.
He reports that price rises have not exceeded LL200.
The Daily Star has spoken to some consumers to further investigate the matter. All of them have said that they have observed a major price rise.
Ibrahim, an engineer who lives in Ras Beirut, said he was certain that many people had greatly reduced their food consumption.
Fruits, he believes, have been scrapped off of most of the poor’s diets.
Darwish says there is very little civil society can do about the situation except “scream” about the violations.
“When the cellular phone rates were on a major upturn some years ago, we were able to get people to turn off their phones and boycott the raise,” recalls Darwish.
“Now, what can we do? Tell people to stop eating? No we can’t.”