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LEBANON: Supermarket chain won't sell Melitta coffee filters with Hebrew writing on package

July 28, 2010 |  9:15 am
Lebanon-melittaFor those craving a fresh cup of home-made Joe while in Lebanon, finding a pack of coffee filters may become a difficult task.

You might even find yourself crawling from neighborhood corner store to mini-mart to grocery megaplex under the scorching sun searching for filters.

Why? Because though the Arab League may lack the unity to cling to its once-potent boycott of Israel, which from 1942 to 1993 was highly comprehensive, Syria and Lebanon still adhere to an orthodox interpretation.

And though the coffee filters you seek may be German and not Israeli -- Melitta in this instance -- it apparently makes no difference to the Lebanese branch of a major Kuwaiti supermarket chain, The Sultan Center, known by its acronym T.S.C.

At least one T.S.C. supermarket nestled in the quaint, largely Francophone neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh in Beirut recently sent back its shipment of Melitta coffee filters after discovering that the boxes had Hebrew script on the side.

“We saw that they are from Israel so we sent them back," one of the retail assistants said to a customer. "Don’t worry. We will be getting Melitta’s from America instead."

No, they’re not from Israel. Though the sight of the Jewish state’s official language is enough to make some foes of Israel recoil, Melitta’s European Article Number, a bar code listed on all products from the continent, shows that the filters were made in Germany.

Lebanon-melitta 001Melitta does maintain distribution centers all over the world to provide its handy paper product to coffee drinkers in Spain, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Bosnia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Romania, Tunisia, and Israel.

Spokespeople for T.S.C. in Kuwait and Lebanon could not be reached for comment.  T.S.C. says it is “eager to work with quality suppliers in all local, regional, and international markets,” according to its website. 

According to some observers, the supermarket has bigger problems than Hebrew script on its products. In August 2008, Lebanese mourned T.S.C.'s takeover of the local branches of Monoprix, a midscale French supermarket chain. Locals frequently lament that prices have since skyrocketed.

A similar complaint of overcharging has been echoed by the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of Justice in November indicted T.S.C. and its parent company, the Public Warehousing Co., a Kuwaiti corporation known as PWC, for allegedly scamming the U.S. Department of Defense out of $8.5 billion.

The U.S. government alleges that T.S.C., in cahoots with PWC, inflated the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables in their contracts with the Pentagon. After PWC paid T.S.C.’s inflated invoice, T.S.C. paid a kickback to PWC in the form of a 10% rebate.

PWC and T.S.C. have provided U.S. troops in the Middle East with food supplies since 2003.

-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut

Photos: The front of a box of the popular Melitta coffee filters and, below, the Hebrew writing identifying an Israeli distributor on the side. Credit: Los Angeles Times