Enhancing the Food and Drug Department

For decades, the Directors of the Government Analyst-Food and Drug Department (GA-FDD) have done yeoman’s working in protecting the health of citizens from unwholesome foods and improper food handling practices.

Going several decades back to the pioneering stewardship of Dr Chatterpaul Ramcharran and then Marilyn Collins, the Directors have functioned with limited manpower and other resources and struggled against the odds. In recent years, the work has continued under Marlan Cole and in the last few months there have been several high profile cases which have underscored both the importance of the GA-FDD work and the dearth of resources available to it.

With a sprawling mandate that encompasses ensuring the imports of all foods and drugs are in compliance with standards, to monitoring labelling of products being sold here to examining sanitary standards in eating places, the GA-FDD has an onerous task. Its responsibilities and needs require immediate attention by the APNU+AFC government to ensure that it can effectively discharge its obligations.

One particular issue that Mr Cole recently invested energy in was the troubling circumstances over the use of water-disinfecting agent Antinfek by the Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI). It now transpires that GWI had used Antinfek to disinfect at least two well stations. This was done even though the water utility’s own Water Quality Manager Donna Canterbury had said that GWI’s laboratory could not test Antinfek when it was being used.

Worse, GWI appeared completely indifferent to the statutory role of the GA-FDD in ruling on the safety of any chemical used in potable water supply.

GWI evinced no respect for the role of the GA-FDD and this is symbolic of the way in which regulatory bodies have been treated by private agencies and even public entities for many years. In some ways, GA-FDD has been seen as an irritant to the plans of importers and others and has not been treated with the respect that its mandate requires. GWI is still to provide a comprehensive explanation to the GA-FDD on how it came to use Antinfek even for exploratory purposes. The water utility must respond to the GA-FDD.

It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that it sends an unmistakable signal that it recognises the importance of the role the GA-FDD has to play and it is seized with the importance of properly resourcing it. The previous PPP/C administration made no effort to improve the circumstances of the GA-FDD despite its expanded role and the likely heavier responsibilities if the food export sector here develops. In fact, the PPP/C government displayed signs to the contrary when it uprooted the agency from its Kingston office to make way for the Marriott Hotel. That dislocation caused problems for the GA-FDD as it related to laboratory testing and other matters.

The APNU+AFC administration has to show that it appreciates and recognises the value of the agency. In the 18 months since it has been in office, the current administration has shown poor judgement in determining spending priorities. It has doled out hundreds of millions on a parade ground-cum-stadium at D’Urban Park which will be of limited value and use whereas in its vital day-to-day testing functions the GA-FDD is under severe pressure.

Nowhere was this more evident than in relation to its testing capacity for juice samples that were sent to it by an evaluation committee under the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board. The GA-FDD was unable to assay the various samples that were sent to it for juice content as a piece of equipment had broken down. This underlines how the important functions of the GA-FDD are under threat and as a result juice meant for a school feeding programme has not been adequately tested. The GA-FDD testing would also have been crucial in determining which bidder had a better product. That function has also been negated and it will be interesting to see how the Bid Protest Committee will decide on who should have this contract.

In a column in this newspaper last year, former Head of the Food and Drug Department,  Marilyn Collins said that as a signatory to the World Trade Organisation Sanitary and Phytosanitary Mea-sures, Guyana is “obligated to establish food safety systems that offer appropriate and adequate level of protection to its populace and its trading partners”. This level of protection, she says, “is expected to be premised on sound scientific principles, demonstrating non-arbitrariness and brings into context the underpinning concepts of international rules.”

This indeed places the onus on the government to make certain that the capacity of the GA-FDD to rule on and devise food and drug safety mechanisms is developed and protected.

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