|Flow of many imports is still a trickle despite end of blockade
|Port, customs officials disagree over cause
Shoppers are reporting shortages of imported consumer items at many of Lebanon's larger supermarket chains, despite the end of the Israeli naval blockade and the subsequent arrival of tons of shipments that had been held at ports across the Mediterranean during the war.
Merchants are complaining of cargo delays on arrival at the Beirut port due to new security measures put in place since activity resumed two weeks ago.
"We are running low on a lot of products, even though our mother companies are still making regular deliveries," a product manager at the Fattal Group, which has distribution contracts with global brands such as Johnson and Johnson and Kraft, told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
"Usually once a ship arrived at the port we would have products on the store shelves within two weeks, but now security concerns are delaying arrival for two months," she added.
Imported soap, shampoo, and laundry detergent are a few of the "fast-moving consumer items" that Fattal expects to be out of stock by next month, if goods are not cleared out of the port quickly.
Another Fattal employee also refused to go on the record, but confirmed that some of the shortages stem from clearance delays, and because the company had cancelled many of its earlier orders because of the "uncertain situation." She said all of the orders have been placed again, and imports will be available soon.
The head of the Beirut Port Authority explained that in addition to cargo being subjected to more extensive security checks, the volume of containers being searched has also increased lately.
"Prior to the summer's events only 20 percent of containers coming into port were being searched by customs and an additional percentage by the army," Hassan Qoraitem told The Daily Star in a telephone interview, "but now army and customs are searching 100 percent of cargo."
Qoraitem said the Port Authority is doing everything it can to speed clearance, and asserted that the new security measures are "in place to help."
An official speaking on behalf of the assistant director of the Lebanese Customs Authority, Chafic Marhi, denied that any new clearance procedures have been introduced, though he did say that agents are checking a larger portion of cargo designated as "red line." He said security procedures for products designated "green line" - which includes consumer goods - have in fact decreased.
"The only difference is that we are checking a smaller portion of the green line items (about 10 percent) and all of the red line goods, but we have many procedures to facilitate fast clearance at port," said the official. "If there are delays the problem is with Mr. Qoraitem."
Joseph Aour, the head of the Association of Food Importers, insisted delays have been minimal, and said most members of his syndicate have reported that 95 percent of regularly stocked items are now available. Aour says the products that have been delayed should arrive on store shelves within 10 days.
"We had shipments spread at ports across the Mediterranean, so it is natural for there to be a delay getting goods, but last week I had 50 containers cleared myself," Aour said. "No one is panicking and all major items are in stock. Some may not have arrived yet, but they are either on the way or in the process of being cleared."
The Daily Star