Offering expired food and drugs for sale

For several years now the Food and Drug Analyst Department has been complaining about the paucity of resources with which to carry out its functions which functions include the monitoring of food and drug imports with a view to determining their safety and fitness or otherwise for human consumption and ensuring, as far as possible, that expired foodstuff is removed from the shelves of supermarkets and outlets rather than sold to consumers at risk to their health.

Since the complaint has arisen again in recent days it is entirely reasonable to assume that the Ministry of Health, under which the FDA falls, has done little to solve the problem.

The persistence of the problem of a lack of monitoring capacity within the FDA points to an underestimation of the importance of that monitoring function. As far as the Department’s monitoring of drug imports were concerned we were told that the shortage of personnel had resulted in efforts to secure the support of the Customs but that, for a period at least, that did not work well and that the Department’s drug inspection mechanism depended almost entirely on importers voluntarily bringing their imported items to the Department for inspection once they had cleared Customs.

In the case of removing expired food items from circulation the FDA faces the huge problem of covering the entire country with very few officers, the upshot of this being that the Department’s policing function is not carried out with anywhere near the level of effectiveness that it should be; and even if it has to be said that a lot depends on consumers themselves in terms of reporting  cases where business houses offer expired goods for sale it has to be said too that the substantive responsibility for deterrence lies with the FDA.

The current discourse on the issue of protecting consumers from expired foods and drugs is occurring at a time when the practice of offering expired goods for sale appears to have grown more prevalent. Based on its own monitoring exercises this newspaper has discovered that there are places which appear to ‘specialize’ in expired or near-expired food items and that some of these items are accessible to vendors who offer them for sale in the municipal markets. We also learnt more recently from a major local distributor that there are importers who are in the habit of importing near-expired goods so that by the time they reach the retailer they may well be past their “sell-by” dates.

One gets the impression that offering expired foods and drugs for sale is the kind of practice that the authorities don’t really mind pronouncing about from time to time. On the other hand it does not appear that the matter is considered sufficiently important to cause action to be taken to curb it. After all, at least as far as we are aware, there are rarely if ever any serious illnesses or deaths resulting from the consumption of expired foods or drugs though informed medical opinion indicates that drugs that have long lost their potency are of no real use the people who take them.

If it might be precipitate to speculate as to the reasons why the FDA continues to suffer a shortage of manpower that is sufficiently severe to seriously hamper its ability to perform its important monitoring functions effectively, one has to wonder whether it might not be possible to explore ways of having other policing agencies support the Department. Here, it is perhaps worth wondering whether the frequent presence of the City Police in the municipal markets may not equip them to lend some help in this regard. Random checks on some of the items being offered by both permanent and itinerant vendors might serve as a deterrent to the practice; in addition to this, of course, as is the case in other countries, both in parts of the Caribbean and elsewhere, more aggressive monitoring and lobbying by consumer interest groups and private sector agencies can help put pressure on the offenders and raise the risk of prosecution.

Of course, in the absence of an effective deterrent delinquent businesses and itinerant hustlers are always likely to take the risk. In the former instance it is instructive to point to the recent legal settlement by  the US pharmacy chain CVS in which its stores in Connecticut were ordered to pay the state US$105,000 and cease the sale of expired products. The more interesting part of the outcome of the case, however, had to do with an agreement that CVS will offer consumers a $2.00 coupon towards any purchase for each expired over-the-counter drug, baby food or formula or dairy product which a customer finds on store shelves and turns in to cashiers.

The application of such penalties requires the legal system to buy into the idea of outlawing the practice though, somehow, one cannot help but think that here in Guyana, offering expired food and drugs for sale to consumers is one of those illegal practices to which we have simply grown accustomed and like so many other types of irregularities that have to do with consumer exploitation, we have simply grown used to accepting it without murmur.