The Government Analyst Food and Drugs Department (GA/FDD) and the Customs and Trade Administration have had longstanding differences arising out of their shared responsibility to ensure the safety and integrity of food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices being imported into Guyana. Both agencies have now conceded that miscommunication and the absence of sustained dialogue between them are responsible for many of the problems that arise in their collaborative effort.
Under the Food and Drugs Act and more specifically under Sections 21 and 22, the two state-run agencies are responsible for ensuring that the aforementioned imports are in compliance with regulations that seek to ensure that they are fit for human consumption and that they can otherwise be used. However, problems have arisen primarily out of claims by the GA/FDD that the Customs and Trade Administration frequently proceeds with the release of imports in the aforementioned categories without allowing for verification that they are in compliance with the requisite regulations.
On Tuesday, senior officials from both agencies met at the Grand Coastal Hotel for an inter-agency forum which GA/FDD Director Marlon Cole told Stabroek Business was intended to help create a clearer common understanding of their respective roles in the execution of a critical national function. In this regard, Cole said, the objective of the forum was “to realise greater cohesion between Food and Drugs and Customs in order to enable more effective collaboration in ensuring the import regulations are followed.”
And against the backdrop of public controversy over importation of fake foods and foods that are otherwise not fit for human consumption, Cole told the gathering that included a number of senior Customs Officers that the prerogative of inspecting imports at the various ports of entry to determine whether they met the desired standard prior to them being released on the domestic market, lay with the GA/FDD.
Assistant Comptroller of Customs (Wharves and Airport) Simone Beckles told the forum that while revenue collection was a substantive Customs responsibility the department was not unaware of its broader obligation to supporting the GA/FDD in helping to guard against sub-standard imports, particularly those that have implications for the health of the nation.
Senior Food Inspector Denise Locke and Senior Drug Inspector Fabiola Robertson briefed the gathering on requirements for the importation of food and drugs, respectively. Both presentations dealt not only with the regulations but also with the challenges associated with their effective administration including what, in some instances, are transgressions of the regulations.
Animated discussions between Cole and senior Customs Officers bared deficiencies in communication channels between the two agencies. While, theoretically at least, the GA/FDD and Customs have been collaborating in the exercise of expediting the importation of food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices into the country, the discourse between representatives on Tuesday reflected a marked information deficit on the part of the participating Customs Officers regarding the import conditionalities under the Food and Drugs Act.
In his presentation Cole had said that his department was concerned over what appeared to be instances of release of containers without them being subject to processing by his department.
And during the exchange between the two entities, Customs Officials tabled a recommendation that a GA/FDD functionary be located at the Customs Department on a full-time basis in order to expedite the processing of documents prior to the release of consignments. Cole, however, pointed out that since the GA/FDD was staffed with just seven Food Inspectors and three Drugs Inspectors that was not possible at this time.
The need to increase the staff compliment at the GA/FDD in the face of the continually mounting inspection and other responsibilities of the department has been an issue for several years and most recently Cole has expressed his frustration over the challenges associated with having to execute the onerous responsibilities of the agency while being underequipped to do so.
Both agencies conceded that there was a lack of GA/FDD inputs into the overall inspection process in Berbice, where the likelihood of goods slipping under the inspection radar was higher. Concerns were expressed regarding the likely greater prevalence of commodities that might carry health risks in outlets in that community.