Gov’t has to do much more for Food and Drugs Department

Like so many other key service departments within the state sector the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department (GAFDD) continues to be afflicted by a chronic scarcity of capacity and resources to effectively execute its mandate, a circumstance that has been due, in large measure, to the indifference of government to incrementally upgrading its capabilities.

No one is suggesting that institutions like the GAFDD can be completely upgraded in one fell swoop. We do know, however, that for a number of years this department has been left understaffed, underfunded and consigned to wholly inadequate accommodation on the UG campus at Turkeyen.

What is interesting about the government’s seeming indifference to enhancing the capabilities of the GAFDD has been the fact that the disposition coincides with developments, both at home and abroad that require the Department to significantly raise its game.

At the domestic level there is the enormous challenge of monitoring and staving off the relentless inflow of expired foods and foods which, for other reasons, are deemed harmful to human health. We have seen evidence of the same problem in the importation of drugs and both are widely believed to be driven by corrupt practices. Then there are those responsibilities associated with monitoring the domestic food safety regime, a task that has become more demanding in the face of the increasing number of hotels, restaurants and other eating houses across the country as well as the rising popularity of food vending at the ‘road corner’ level. In each of these instances the GAFDD has an oversight responsibility  which it has said, time and again, it simply lacks the capability to carry out effectively.

Setting these aside there is the equally pressing need for the GAFDD to provide monitoring and testing services for the growing army of local food manufacturers whose export ambitions require that they secure the help of the Department in determining whether or not what they produce meets with the standards required under the laws of those countries whose markets our exporters seek to secure. Here, one might mention the impact which the United States’ Food Safety Modernization Act has had on the conditionalities associated with importing foods into that country, a matter on which this newspaper has reported ad nauseam.

In sum, while the GAFDD has a critical role to play in providing services that have to do with both the health of the nation and the earnings secured from exports to lucrative markets, the level of its importance is not matched by the extent of the attention that it receives from the state.

We note that on Wednesday August 30th the GAFDD held yet another of its now commonplace one-day seminars, this time, to, among other things,  “inform food handlers and other operatives in the food service industry (ready to eat food), on the importance of serving food to consumers, at the correct temperature by using warmers and chillers,” and to sensitise food handlers to their responsibility to ensure that high-risk foods are retained at the correct temperature  “during storage, transportation, distribution.”

The first thing that should be mentioned here is that Wednesday’s Seminar is reflective of an awareness on the part of the GAFDD that even in the face of its trying circumstances it has a responsibility to keep trying. On the other hand it is surely worth mentioning, in the first instance, that of the, at least, several hundreds of food vendors across Guyana only a small handful of them ever really get access to fora of this type so that for all the efforts of the GAFDD, exercises like Wednesday’s forum are no more than the proverbial drop in the ocean, the point being that even the best efforts of the Department leave the vast majority of consumers of foods prepared outside of their homes potentially vulnerable.  But there is more. Beyond the food handlers sensitisation fora – this is the second one to which this newspaper has been invited in a few months – there are the other areas of responsibility that fall to the GAFDD to which its resources do not allow it to pay nearly sufficient attention. That apart, some of its efforts to ensure that aspects of the regulations – governing the importation of foods and drugs, for example – must contend with corrupt practices that undermine the effectiveness of what they try to do and – at times – directives that appear to run counter to established rules and regulations; so that even with the best will in the world efforts to lay down the law are compromised.

A case need hardly be made at this juncture for the increasing importance of the role of the GAFDD in matters pertaining to food safety and public health, at the domestic level and at the international level, ensuring that our food exports meet the standards required by the international market. When the track record of the Department is carefully examined it is clear that its limitations repose, mainly, in the fact, that government continues to appear not to recognise the nexus between the work of the GAFDD and the well-being of the nation  and, as a consequence, is simply not doing enough to better equip it to play its important role.

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