Food vending on the streets: An over-stretched Food and Drugs Department

Third Instalment

As if the weighty responsibilities associated with monitoring consignments of foods being imported into Guyana for sale to the consuming public were not enough, the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department (GA&FDD) has other equally weighty responsibilities that have to do with monitoring the safety of street-vended foods. The Department’s Director, Marlan Cole concedes that in relation to this particular responsibility the GA&FDD is doing its best in what is a far from ideal situation. Like everything else, he says, it is a question of “doing as much as you can.”

Cole concedes that what can sometimes make street-vended foods a public health threat is the ease with which a vendor can duck beneath the monitoring radar. “The laws are there,” he says. “The challenge lies in enforcing them.” To the question of the extent of the health risk Cole declines to indulge in estimation. He says that judging from the attention deficit suffered by this small sub-sector of the industry “there has to be some measure of risk out there.”

Participants at a recent food safety seminar delivered by the Food and Drugs Department

Still, a sampling of the popularity of street-vended food by this newspaper suggests that this particular form of food service is not about to fade away. We found among the twenty-seven  persons on downtown Georgetown and lower East Coast to whom we spoke a significant number (13) of “regulars,” customers who eat street-vended food at least “two or three times a week”. Only one of the total number “never” eat street-vended foods.  All of the consumers of street-vended foods insist that, over time, standards have risen beyond the days of one or two pots wrapped tightly in fabric to “keep the heat in” and a few small plates washed repeatedly in the same bucket of water. They believe that stricter food safety laws have made a difference but are not (at least so they say) unduly concerned about the existing risks which they insist have been minimized.

Still, the responsibilities that weigh on the shoulders of the GA&FDD are considerable. Those include providing training in food handling, testing for food contamination and cross-contamination, pest control, sanitation, storage and food microbiology. With the GA&FDD having, for years, fought a fruitless battle with the authorities for an upgrading of the Department to meet national food safety needs Cole tells Stabroek Business that “you can easily see where the problem arises.”

The GA&FDD issues Food Handler’s Certificates but it can only issue such certificates to those who meet the personal health and hygiene and food preparation standards requirements necessary to qualify for such certificates. It is easy not to bother to apply since it is absurdly easy to slip in and out of the mostly nocturnal trade.

The scarcity of resources interferes with the efficiency of the monitoring operation at every turn. “Our inspectors ought to be taking food samples and swabbing cooking surfaces and utensils to facilitate testing regularly,” Cole says, pointing out that “once a year” is usually considered to be a satisfactory periodicity. “We are unable to do so in the absence of food and laboratory capacity,” Cole says.

The GA&FDD Head told Stabroek Business that he was concerned that the scarcity of resources had created what he described as “a dangerous gap between the existence of a system and our inability to execute the system. What has happened is that, over the years these facilities have sprung up with great speed. Many of them are able to come and go without anyone noticing. It is impossible for us to keep up with them.”

This newspaper is aware of the rapid emergence and disappearance of street vending services particularly in poor sub-urban communities where the preoccupation is with providing a family subsidy and where food safety considerations are low on the list of priorities. Cole says that this, coupled with the fact that a lack of effective monitoring capacity puts delinquent vendors low on the list of priorities means that they can easily get away with evading the law.

The GA&FDD Director says that ensuring adherence by vendors who offer food for sale on the streets to food safety laws begins with a capacity to receive assurances about the health status of the vendors. After that there are things   like ensuring there are facilities for running water at the vending site, food warmers and chillers. “To all of these we must add a trained food handler,” Cole says.

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