The food safety scandal dividing Jordanian society
Is food in Jordan safe? Claims to the contrary made by Dr Sanaa Gammoh, a former Director of the Food and Drugs Laboratories at the Jordanian Food and Drugs Authority (JFDA), have divided the Hashemite Kingdom in recent weeks.
In an interview with local media on 23 October, Dr Gammoh claimed that several food products sold in the Jordanian market contained concerning levels of carcinogenic substances.
These allegations, and the reaction of food safety authorities, have snowballed into a nationwide debate that reveals a growing rift between Jordanians and their institutions.
Jordan's food 'cannot be called safe'
In September, a UN policy brief about nutrition found that 84% of Jordanians eat unhealthy diets - containing fewer fruits and vegetables than the WHO’s recommended intake.
Among other recommendations, the brief highlighted the need for better labelling of food, as many products are sold without an ingredients’ list, and for tighter controls over pesticide use.
"Allegations about food safety, and the reaction by authorities, have snowballed into a nationwide debate that reveals a growing rift between Jordanians and their institutions"
Commenting on the report’s results, Dr Gammoh stated that food in Jordan could not generally be called “safe”. According to Gammoh, imported fish can contain remnants of veterinary drugs, and some dairy products sold on the Jordanian market were based on powdered milk and unhealthy additives, rather than fresh milk.
According to tests carried out in her lab, several samples of wheat and rice – two staples in the Jordanian diet - also contained traces of toxic chemicals, including phosphorous.
Most worryingly, Dr Gammoh highlighted the relationship between these components and the emergence of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, which are the two most prevalent forms in Jordan according to the WHO’s Global Cancer Observatory.
Although lower than in the West, rates of cancer are “alarmingly” high in Jordan according to local health authorities, with high smoking rates a likely driver. The kingdom has recently witnessed a stark increase in certain types, including breast cancer – a 69% increase between 2005 and 2015 - with breast cancer patients generally younger than their Western counterparts.
Dr Gammoh’s revelations carried weight because she had herself headed the JFDA’s Food and Drugs Laboratories between 2005 and 2007. But the current director of the JFDA, Dr Nizar Mhaidat, immediately dismissed the claims, stating that Gammoh’s revelations were “inaccurate” and based on outdated information.
On 30 October, local media reported that a lawsuit had been filed against Gammoh, although Dr Mhaidat assured this was not the work of the JFDA. Mhaidat and Gammoh were both summoned in front of a parliamentary Health Committee the week following Gammoh’s revelations.
This response did not seem to deter Dr Gammoh, who told local media she was “glad” about the lawsuit. "I welcome the judiciary. It will judge the accuracy of what I said," Gammoh told Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad on 2 November. "This is an opportunity to put this whole file on the table."
Food standards are set by the Jordan Standards and Metrology Organization (JDMO) and enforced by the JFDA. With a population of 10 million and in the absence of a unified regional market, Jordan cannot realistically implement the wide set of standards upheld by the European Union, but it does control and reject a number of shipments each year.
Mhaidat highlighted that 25 tons of rice and 70 tons of cereals have been destroyed or re-exported since the beginning of the year.
“Gammoh’s statements created a huge reaction amongst Jordanians,” recognised MP Ahmed Al-Sarrahna, who heads the Parliamentary Health and Environment Committee, in an interview with local media.
This was fed in part by the loss of faith in Jordan’s food systems, after a series of scandals.
The reputation of local crops was severely tainted in the early 2000s by the use of polluted irrigation water from the Zarqa river, which runs between the capital Amman and the industrial Zarqa.
Releases from factories upstream and the lack of proper wastewater treatment massively contaminated the Zarqa river, likened to “a sewage canal” by the then Minister of Environment.
Farmers nonetheless continued to irrigate their crops with Zarqa water for years, which led to further contamination up the food chain.
“I think food in Jordan is generally safe. But one of my concerns is the massive use of pesticides during transport and storage of wheat and rice in particular,” Seham Momaneh, a Jordanian environmental health expert, told The New Arab.
"She did not say anything extraordinary: we all know that processed foods contain substances that are bad for our health, in Jordan and everywhere else in the world. What is shocking is the way they cracked down against her"
Momaneh noted this concern is “common for all countries that do not produce their own grains,” but several Jordanians told The New Arab they were worried about pesticide use, pointing to past scandals.
In 2017, the United Arab Emirates banned the import of several vegetables from Jordan over concerns about high pesticide remnants. Losing the UAE - one of Jordan’s top agricultural exports markets - prompted Jordanian authorities to adopt stricter controls.
These concerns are aggravated by low traceability due to the lack of systemic labelling. Packaged items like bread, fresh dairy, and biscuits are commonly sold without a list of ingredients or a way to track their origin.
Shadows of corruption
The Parliamentary Health Committee concluded that Gammoh’s claims were based on specific food samples and could not be considered “conclusive” evidence that Jordanian food was unsafe – but this did not quell the public debate.
By 1 November, the hashtag “Sanaa Gammoh” had soared among the top trending hashtags on Twitter. Many Jordanians expressed support using the hashtag #SolidaritywithSanaGammoh.
Several drew parallels with the case of former Minister of Health Abdel Rahim Malhas, who was forced to resign in 1994 after claims about corruption in Jordan’s food sector.
“For many years, Dr. Sanaa Gammoh raised her voice about what is happening in our food and drugs sector, a cry that is an extension of the one launched by the late former Minister of Health, Dr Malhas,” former MP Ghazi Al-Fayez recalled in an op-ed.
The opening of a court case against Gammoh was widely perceived as an intimidation attempt by local authorities.
“She did not say anything extraordinary: we all know that processed foods contain substances that are bad for our health, in Jordan and everywhere else in the world,” Umm Sarah, a Syrian refugee who runs a home-based business selling imported food supplements, told The New Arab. “What is shocking is the way they cracked down against her.”
Jordan ranks 60th out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which ranks countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. This relatively high ranking betrays eroding trust in institutions, aggravated by the lack of a free media space which leads many to distrust mainstream information channels.
The New Arab contacted Dr Gammoh and the JFDA for comment but did not receive a reply by the time for publication.
Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais