Hot air on food safety

It did not require the recent intervention of the Chief Medical Officer to make us aware of the fact that food-borne diseases are generally seriously under-reported and may well pose a serious public health threat in Guyana.

Local hospitals treat food poisoning of various degrees of severity with monotonous regularity and two medical practitioners with whom Stabroek Business spoke agreed that part of the problem had to do with an acute absence of sufficiently high safety and health standards coupled with what, sometimes, is an appalling unmindfulness among Guyanese as to where and what we eat.

Problems of safety and health standards in the food sector extend way beyond the standards to which eating houses are required to adhere and the strictness with which those standards are policed. We have had our fair share of episodes involving the placing of imported expired food items on the market, while the safety and health standards in the local manufacturing sector have also come under scrutiny.

In the instance of the expired food imports, the Food and Drugs Department has, for years, complained about its lack of capacity to effectively monitor food imports at our sea and airports. The Ministry of Health has also, for years, failed to provide a satisfactory response to this deficiency. The department’s human resource paucity also impacts on its ability to monitor the distribution of expired and otherwise risky food (and drug) imports locally.

Over time, the Ministry of Health has sought to play catch up through seminars like the recent one held with the support of PAHO, though it is patently clear that in the matter of food safety standards we are more or less running fast to stand still.

There are two reasons for this. First, the Food and Drugs Department and the municipal food safety authorities are patently unable to check the dangerous lawlessness that passes for service in some sections of the restaurant and snackette industry. The second reason has to do with the speed with which global food safety standards are evolving and the inability of our own national food safety regime to keep pace with those standards.

The most glaring recent case in point is the new US Food Safety Modernization Act, which when fully implemented will effectively veto the importation into the US of the vast majority of food imports from Guyana unless measures are taken to meet the various stringent safety and health requirements set out in the US legislation.

We are aware of no serious initiatives taken by either the government or the private sector as a whole to treat with the challenges associated with food safety whether those pertain to locally consumed foods or to locally manufactured food exports. From all we have been told, given the imminent implementation of the US Food Safety Modernization Act (in 2013) the kinds of one-off food safety seminars supported by PAHO – however welcome these may be – are not enough.

Indeed, when one considers that Guyana is, even now, seeking to position itself to play a critical role in a wider regional food security plan, that is all the more reason why food safety should move closer to the top of the agendas of both the private sector and the government. Save and except for perhaps one or two notable private sector exceptions, there is no evidence of any serious initiatives on the part of either businesses or the government to seriously get their minds around the food safety issue despite its obvious implications for both public health and for the country’s economy. Certainly the likely implications of the US Food Safety Modernization Act for the local manufacturing sector is more than sufficient cause for the government to sit down with the private sector – and perhaps even to take the discourse to the region as a whole – to determine the way forward for our food exporters. Both the government and the private sector are yet to make decisive moves on this issue.

Once again we appear destined to find ourselves in a position of desperately trying to close the stable doors long after the horses have bolted.

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