‘Totally under resourced’ Food and Drug Dep’t likely for new office, labs next year – Director

Next year seems brighter for the dismally resourced Government Analyst Food and Drug Department (GA-FDD) as the APNU+AFC administration has budgeted funds that would enable the agency to acquire its own office and laboratories and fulfil its vast mandate, Director Marlan Cole, says.

“We have secured a document from the University of Guyana, for working collaboration. They have identified a piece of land for us right here [on the Turkeyen Campus] that we will build on,” Cole told Stabroek News in an interview last week, at the GA-FDD’s office, located in the Insti-tute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST) Turkeyen, compound.

“We also have a cabinet paper and we forwarded that to the PS [Permanent Secretary] who will give the Minister [of Public Health] …I know we are for consideration at the Ministry of Finance, in the 2017 Budget. So, we had wanted it for 2016 but we didn’t get it but it seems we will be getting in for 2017,” a smiling Cole added.

Marlan Cole
Marlan Cole

For the regulatory body that is supposed to oversee more than 36% of the country’s  yearly GDP, a budgetary allocation in response to its laments about the daily struggles  it faces with the lack of human and other resources, is most welcoming.

“This building, that we are in, is a rented one. We used to be at the Marriott [Hotel] Kingston location, and we had to move to pave the way for the building of the Marriott. At that time, people never used to pay attention to an institution like ours. But as a regulatory department, we play an important and crucial role in this whole import and export sector… In most cases we were not given the type of support to function as an independent regulatory department,” he stated.

“You can’t have agriculture diversification if you don’t have a robust regulatory system. For example, anybody would put pepper sauce in any bottle and start selling it, and anybody would bring any and everything and dump it on your market. So it would be confusion. When your nation has a good control over import/export, especially of foods, cosmetics and medical supplies, it demonstrates that your nation has gone some way, in terms of protecting the customer,” he added.

‘Poor pay and temptations for bribes’

He said that while he is grateful for a dedicated office and laboratories, of utmost importance was the department’s human resource base, which is severely understaffed. This in turn, he believes, is the key reason that enforcement countrywide is poor.

“We don’t have the resources for enforcement. You see these documents here?” he said pointing to dossiers of documents stacked atop his desk and nearby cupboards. “My officers are inundated with processing containers and ensuring they have the right documents. It is only six of them and we have over 600 importers. We are totally under resourced,” he stressed.

“We have vacancies for six drug inspectors, we only have three working with us, and we have that vacancy ad for the six, it has been running for the past two years. Persons are not taking up the posts because of the salaries. It is just $65,000 and that does not make sense,” he added.

An employee of the agency pointed out to Stabroek News the temptations faced daily with having to rely on personal integrity and honestly when offered bribes for documentation on products.

“Here is worse than working at Customs [the Guyana Revenue Autho-rity] because when you look at [it] you are taking home such a small amount and someone comes and offers you double or triple what you make in one month, in just one day, you have to ask yourself ‘What should I do?’” she said.

“It is only because I have a conscience and I have to think about ‘What if someone dies if I allow so and so to go through’ that I don’t let those things full me eye…but you tell me nah, how many other persons have a mother that gives them passage and meals every day and can say no also?” she added.

Cole said that he has been begging for a raise in the salaries “forever” and he still does not know if it will be raised this year. “We have put in a million requests also for raise in salary …,” he said.

Pressing on

But with the limited personnel he has, the GA-FDD Head said that the agency continues to press on and has been impactful countrywide, although Guyana’s porous borders allows for much smuggling.

“We are getting some results at the points of entry but you know our borders are very porous so smuggled goods we have no control of that. We have an environmental officer, who works along with us in the regions, and we hold a food safety meeting every month. There we notify them of actions we are taking against whatever product and they would look for it in their jurisdiction, and we will ourselves do enforcement,” Cole posited.

“We are on the lookout for expired milk, counterfeit items and extended shelf life. Things like Caramel (candy bar), that they the importers and sellers take out of this pack, imported from Canada expired, and put in this packet,” he added, pointing to the ingenious works of traders.

The GA-FDD Director informed that it was not only fake products he has to deal with daily but forged documents.

“We have people bringing forged documents to us, all these things we have to deal with,” he said.

And while expired and fake foods are troubling for the GA-FDD, the issue of counterfeit and placebo drugs only exacerbates their troubles.

Cole pointed to some drugs, such as the prescription pain reliever Voltaren, which has seen counterfeits popping up in pharmacies across the country. He said it is only one of a myriad list and the department can only do so much at a time to investigate and take them off the shelves.

Lack of and malfunctioning equipment

Crippling the execution of its testing here is the lack of equipment and machines.

Only recently the department was unable to do a vital test on juice for the nation’s school feeding programme because of broken equipment.

Currently, both the GA-FDD’s High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and Gas Chro-matography (GC) systems are down. The Trinidadian Western Scientific Company has stepped in to assist with repairs and the agency hopes that soon the machines would be working.

Assistance for the agency has also come from regional and international organisations with Cole announcing that the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) has provided its expertise to assist in the design and construction of the new building.

“We consult with different places for training and different agencies for help and yes they have been helping. For instance, the Caribbean Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality (CROSQ) we are working with them towards accrediting the laboratories here, all the labs.

“The next thing we have to do is to get the design. We want to ensure the building will be fit for the purpose we said we would build it. So the Pan American Health Organisation is actually helping us with the design. We went a good way working with a local consultant from UG. But what had stalled PAHO, in terms of doing the final design, was that they had wanted us to visit two facilities, that they had recently constructed for this very purpose, in Mexico and one in Dominican Republic. They wanted those site visits and [then] we come back to the drawing board to design,” Cole explained.

“It was halted, to some extent and we were trying to get the allocation for 2016 but we didn’t. We are hoping the cabinet paper will be tabled and entertained …as soon as we get those signals we will take up the offer and go visit. We don’t want to fall into that type of dilemma  where we get a building not fit for our work…We want to ensure that when we design the food and drug labs it will meet international standards,” he added.

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