As the economic costs and potential health risks associated with the proliferation of counterfeit consumer items become increasingly apparent, Director of the Food and Drugs Department Marlan Cole has told Stabroek Business that his department is stepping up initiatives within the scope of its limitations to protect the health of the population and the viability of businesses against “an illegal multi-billion dollar industry.”
According to Cole, the work of his department is receiving the “total support” of the Ministry of Health and the government as a whole and the business community is demonstrating a greater willingness to engage his department and provide information that could help tackle the problem more effectively.
But the Food and Drugs Department Head made it clear that the country was battling with a problem that it still lacked the capacity to overcome. Cole said there is also the danger that the country as a whole may be exposed to “the potential health risks” associated with the proliferation of counterfeit drugs and food items on the local market as well as the protests over loss of market share being made by legitimate importers.
Cole conceded that counterfeit consumer goods continued to challenge the capacity of his department and that of the state as a whole. He said setting aside the sheer global volume of the trade the Department was concerned that counterfeit consumer items were finding their way into Guyana through both legal and illegal ports of entry.
Beyond these two challenges, Cole said, his department had moved to significantly tighten its own procedures associated with providing licences for the importation and sale of drugs. He explained that while the issuance of licences was the substantive responsibility of the Ministry of Trade, the Food and Drugs Department had an important verification role to play in the matter of the bona fides of the applicant for the licence.
Cole told Stabroek Business that the Food and Drugs Department continued to be unsure as to the extent of proliferation of counterfeit consumer goods into Guyana though he said it was creating a situation in which more people who are being affected are beginning to want to do something about it. The Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association, for example, is working with the department because the problem of counterfeiting is impacting on a greater number of productive areas including many in which its members are legitimately involved.
The Food and Drugs Department is also responsible for certifying that applicants for such licences are registered with the Department and that the drugs for which import permits are being sought are registered locally.
Stabroek Business had earlier spoken with some vendors who trade outside municipal markets where traders in counterfeit goods are believed to operate an increasingly thriving trade. Those vendors told this newspaper that increasing volumes of counterfeit consumer goods appear to be coming into Guyana through official ports of entry, an assertion which if true, removes much of the solution from the hands of the Food and Drugs Department.
Meanwhile, Cole said more engagement between legitimate importers and his Department was “a significant step forward in pursuit of solutions to the problem.” Cole said such collaboration was a reflection of the fact that there was also a significant economic dimension to the issue of counterfeit goods and the local market.
He said the information being provided by the affected importers was helping to strengthen mechanisms for the suppression of the illegal pursuits.
Cole said that while his Department had long been aware of the scale of the problem as it relates to food and cosmetics, it was only now becoming more familiar with the problem as it relates to medicines.
Meanwhile, he said that while the movement of counterfeit goods across the country’s borders was not a circumstance over which the Department had any control, it had put mechanisms in place to monitor aspects of commercial activity at some of the country’s major trading outlets which, amongst them, are responsible for an estimated 50 per cent of the overall local trade in food items. He said that the Department’s Food Safety Officers were now better positioned to do monitoring on food safety-related issues in the outlying areas. “I believe that we now have a sound network that can police and check on specific products. That information better positions us to alert consumers,” Cole added. Though he said that “still more legwork” was needed.
And according to Cole efforts to suppress counterfeit goods at legitimate ports of entry had led to increased exchanges between the Food and Drugs Department and Customs though he said his Department is able to examine “only some of the goods that come into the country.”
Asked about possible pressures from influential businessmen who may not favour regulations and procedures, Cole said he has not had to face that problem officially in his capacity as Head of the Department. “It may be true that whenever you are making a regulatory decision the tendency is for some people, who see it as affecting their interests, to run to a high official. As Director of this Department no one has ever called me to say please facilitate this or that person. There has been total support there.”