Food safety: Who cares anyway?

An intense if somewhat muted row  has been ensuing between some local business importers and the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department (GA/FDD) over what has become the prevalent practice by some distributors of importing volumes of food items that do not adhere to the requirements that obtain under the Food and Drugs Act. These requirements have to do with the need to satisfy food safety considerations that underpin human health concerns.

On the whole, public interest in food safety issues is nowhere near as focused as it should be, that truism is illustrated in the seeming extent of the demand for expired imported food items openly available on the local market. There is, too, a marked public indifference to the frequent warnings disseminated by the GA/FDD about fake brands, though it has to be said that far more resources need to be put into planned and sustained public awareness initiatives on food safety issues.

Numbered amongst the suspect food imports are significant volumes of infant formula. Official attention to this issue continues to fail miserably to match its seriousness.

All too frequently, it appears that foods that do not qualify for entry under our food safety regulations are shipped to Guyana and find their way through our ports of entry and onto the market without the official clearance of the GA/FDD. It would appear that rogue importers are not without the kinds of official ‘connections’ that allow for this practice.

Ranged off against the country’s food safety regulations, are a seemingly willing but weak enforcement agency, a preoccupation on the part of the aforementioned rogue distributors with profit, an insufficiently sensitized population, a state public health apparatus that is nowhere near as diligent and as sustained in its insistence on food safety standards as it should be and a private sector business support infrastructure which, by its silence, continues to send a message of indifference on the food safety issue.

Such official comment on food safety as has been forthcoming in recent years has arisen primarily out of the restraints being placed on the export of foods from Guyana on account of  laws passed in importing countries, particularly the United States that seek to tighten food safety qualifications for importers. Even here, the Government of Guyana has, up until now, failed to invest in the tools and human resources that can ensure compliance with importing country regulations (the US Food Safety Modernization Act is the best example), a posture which, in effect, does potential harm to the market prospects in the US for our food exporters.

Where domestic food safety is concerned it is apposite to comment on a statement from the GA/FDD earlier this week about the dangers associated with the consumption of ready-to-eat foods. Here again, the Department is drawing attention to a prevalent and potentially dangerous transgression, which (even though we ponder the likely extent of the impact of what is no more than a feeble reminder) by and large, has long been lacking in any serious and sustained official oversight. One cannot help but feel that the GA/FDD’s reminder notwithstanding, the practice of offering unsafe ready-to-eat foods to consumers, including thousands of the nation’s schoolchildren will persist except a far more widespread and robust public awareness exercise ensues.

A few small snackette proprietors and roadside vendors have already frowned on the GA/FDD’s reminder, making the point about the additional costs associated with adding food warmers to their inventory. If there is something decidedly irrational in seeking to mount a spirited defence of a commercial practice that may carry a public health risk, the persistence of the practice has everything to do with the fact that the authorities, both central government and City Hall, have failed in their enforcement responsibilities. There is simply no persuasive evidence that at a law-enforcement level, indifference to considerations of food safety are measured against the likely high cost to the health services of treating ailments associated with consuming foods that might be unfit for human consumption; nor, it appears, is there any real mindfulness of the impact of indifference to food safety might be having on the productivity of the work force.

Reducing the food safety-related risks to the public goes beyond strengthening the capabilities of the GA/FDD even though serious investment in a complete makeover of the Department that focuses on capacity building from the standpoint of the science of food safety would represent a significant breakthrough. It would require a severing of such corrupt connections as rogue importers might have, and a far greater sense of official earnestness in the enforcement of food safety regulations and the imposition of penalties for transgression. More than that, our business support organizations, particularly the Private Sector Commission must publicly set their faces against the rogue importers, positioning the policies of the private sector alongside those that have to do with the health and wellness of the nation.

The virtue of realizing a heightened national sensitivity to food safety issues requires a regime of public consultations that go way beyond what, frequently, are the farcical fora that pass for engagements with national audiences. We will continue to run food safety-related risks with the health of the nation until the authorities succeed in doing sufficient to get the attention of the nation. Not nearly enough is being done at this time.

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