Finally, food safety legislation?

Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy’s announcement last week about the introduction of draft Food Safety legislation in the National Assembly at its next sitting would have taken many people by surprise.

Indeed, some, including this newspaper, were beginning to lose hope that the government would move to properly address issues of food safety any time soon, given what has been going on globally as far as raising food safety standards is concerned.

Higher food safety standards are of course for our own good as a nation. We are, hopefully, aware of the adage that we are what we eat. It goes beyond that, however. Guyana and the Caribbean’s attention to food safety standards has been triggered by the 2010 signing into law of the United States’ Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

This historic piece of US legislation has been discussed in this column before. Its relevance to Guyana and the Caribbean is that it has erected formidable hurdles to cross if the foods that we grow and manufacture are to secure access to lucrative overseas markets.

Canada, incidentally, has assumed a similarly assertive posture on food safety standards so that Guyana finds itself between the proverbial rock and hard place as far as access to North America’s food market is concerned,

One assumes, therefore, that the drafting of the Bill will take particular account of already existing legislation in the USA and Canada in order to ensure that local legislation shapes the manufacturing sector to pursue production along lines that would optimize the chances of what we produce finding acceptance on North American markets.

Since 2010 the government has barely batted an eyelid as far as taking measures to raise local food safety standards is concerned. And while the promised legislation comes better late than never, we must still play catchup with the rest of the region after which we would still have further ground to cover in terms of where we need to be if we are to reach a point where we are able to comply with the conditionalities set out in the FSMA.

For example, the FSMA permits the US Food and Drug Administration to travel to Guyana to determine the safety and health bona fides of both the farmlands and the farming facilities as well as the mills and factories used in the production of food exported to the US.

Of course, legislation means nothing save and except when it is supported by an enabling environment of equipment, trained personnel and testing facilities that can determine the suitability of our manufactured products for external markets. The Government Analyst Food and Drugs Department has already declared its own limited capacity to conduct testing.

It is also no secret that much of the food-related products are manufactured using methods and food hygiene standards that would be frowned upon under stricter food safety regimes.

It is anyone’s guess as to the time it will take for the promised food safety legislation to make its way in and out of the National Assembly.

What is not in doubt is that long before the proposed legislation becomes the law, Guyana may well find itself confronted with a major missed market opportunity and an uphill task to find its way back from there.

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