Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

Welcome (Back) to The Jungle: Why Privatization of Meat Inspections Will Increase Corruption and Threaten Food Safety

Over a century ago, the tales of squalid meat production in Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle shocked the United States, contributing to a public outcry that ultimately led to regulations requiring a government inspector to examine every single meat carcass intended for human consumption. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) is responsible for the inspection regime. The established assessment program requires multiple FSIS inspectors to be on-site, performing a process of continual, carcass-by-carcass inspection during slaughter. The system is far from perfect and has never been a stranger to scandal (see here, here, and here). Yet it has been seen as vital to safeguarding public health from foodborne illnesses, including e.coli and salmonella outbreaks. It is also backed by a robust legal regime designed to insulate the inspectors from bribery and other forms of improper influence.

Unfortunately, throughout its history, FSIS has faced pressure to favor in-house inspectors over government inspectors in the name of creating a “flexible, more efficient” system. The most recent experiment with limiting the role of FSIS inspectors is HIMP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Management Program), a program being piloted in a handful of pork plants and set to be proposed as a final regulation soon. (The related New Poultry Inspection System is being phased in now despite legal challenges.) HIMP uses in-house staff to conduct most of the inspections, particularly early on. A limited number of FSIS personnel do paperwork oversight and spot checks at particular points on the line.

However one chooses to balance competing calls for efficiency and safety, this is a short-sighted idea. Government inspectors and regulatory personnel are not perfect, but they are covered by anti-bribery laws and whistleblower protections that in-house inspectors are not, making them a safer bet for the safety of the meat supply. Filth and disease garner headlines, but civil society should continue to fight for an active role for government inspectors for another reason—public corruption is easier to fight than private influence. Even if one agrees that government inspectors are less efficient (a questionable proposition, despite how often it’s repeated), there are a number of laws and regulations in place designed to prevent (or expose) the corruption of these inspectors by the meat industry; there is no comparable regulatory regime in place to prevent equivalent corruption, or other forms of more subtle improper influence, from distorting the decisions of in-house private inspectors. Consider a few key areas of separation:

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