There was a surprise amid the 47 tons of U.S. wheat that arrived in Jordan's southern port of Aqaba in October. Consider it a protein supplement: 57 mice, 1 rat, 7 toads, 13 birds, 1 fish and 1 snakeskin. No word on the whereabouts of the snake.
These were the findings of the Jordanian Ministry of Health, which investigated the shipment after its infestation caused a diplomatic row, forcing the U.S. Embassy to defend the honor of American agriculture and leaving the Jordanian public wondering whether the United States was trying to palm off cheapo grain on an Arab ally.
In the process, the conspiracy theories mounted, parliament launched an inquiry and the press had a field day.
"The government's men counted 57 mice. . . . What can assure us that there were not 570 mice? Who can eat the bread?" asked Fuad Abu Hejleh, managing editor of al-Arab al-Yawm, the daily that broke the story about the infested wheat. "The minister of health can afford French bread, I can't. . . . We don't think the wheat is fit for human consumption."
In fact, government scientists said the wheat is fine, because it is fumigated and cleaned before being ground and baked into the round loaves that are a staple of the Jordanian diet. But the incident still struck a nerve in this small, resource-poor country, where issues involving food and water are always on the mind. Riots over the price of bread were one of the few events that rattled the rule of the late King Hussein. There was also a controversy over contaminated drinking water a couple of summers ago.
But mousy wheat from America was just too much for people to bear. "It became a political issue," said Abdul Rahim Malhas, a former Jordanian health minister whose battles within the government over food and drug testing led him to leave office. "The Islamists say the Americans gave us bad wheat. Others accused the merchants, and others accused the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Trade. . . . It is a very sensitive issue."
U.S. Embassy officials said a certain amount of foreign matter is normal in ocean transport of large grain shipments. "The Food and Drug Administration has guidelines for this, you know, that tomato ketchup can be so many parts frog," one embassy staffer joked. "All countries do this. . . . You don't want to know what is going on in the kitchen."
In any case, U.S. officials noted, the shipment was inspected by U.S. government agents before it left America and was probably infested on its Maltese-flagged freighter, whose leaky hull was also blamed for contaminating several tons of the grain with sea water.
The United States donates 300,000 tons of wheat annually to Jordan--half the country's consumption--but this load was not part of that program. In this deal, Jordan bought the wheat privately and arranged shipment. "We'd like them to get the facts more accurate," U.S. Embassy spokesman Alberto Fernandez said of the uproar.
That, said Salameh Hiary, chairman of the parliament's agriculture committee, is beside the point. All inspection documents--from the loading port in Texas to Aqaba and on to the silos in Jordan--describe the wheat as free of problems and "fit for human consumption." Yet there was obviously an infestation to some degree, a fact not acknowledged until local newspapers, apparently acting on a tip from truck drivers, began writing about the carcasses that were found.
Hiary said that while ministry officials estimated the number of dead animals in the shipment, there will never be an exact accounting of when the infestation occurred or why it was not documented before the wheat was accepted in Aqaba--the procedure required by Jordanian law.
As parliament pushed for the answers to those questions, members were lectured by King Abdullah about how criticism of local institutions erodes national unity.
That, Hiary said, is an attitude he finds even scarier than mice in his bread. "The problem is," he concluded, "they don't want to admit the problem."
CAPTION: Cartoon in the daily al-Dustur shows a rodent terrorizing Amman as official says: "There are only 57 mice. I don't understand why you are making such a big issue out of it."