Food and Drug Department prepares to better serve consuming public

The Government Analyst Food and Drug Department (GA-FDD) has had an interesting 2016 and this year all efforts will be placed on obtaining international accreditation, building staff capacity and re-operationalizing the laboratory to ensure that the public is better served, Director Marlan Cole says.

Cole, during a recent interview with Sunday Stabroek, outlined his vision for the department, which saw some successes in 2016, and said things will get better once it is able to occupy its own building. He said more attention will be placed on the fatty acid testing of milk products and how high risk drugs are transported to Guyana.

He said the department was and continues to be in preparatory mode to ensure that its laboratory obtains international accreditation. He explained that in March 2017 it will be in a position to provide services to the manufacturing sector and consumers from the lab under an accredited umbrella. Cole said this means the results of analyses will be able to withstand international scrutiny.

In order to get to this stage, the GA-FDD has to ensure that its quality assurance manual is up and ready for assessment, the Standard Operating Procedures are fine-tuned and the scope of accreditation is attended to. He explained that all of this will ensure that when the department issues a certificate to a client, it would be able to withstand international scrutiny and its validity would not be questionable.

He explained that for most of 2016 the laboratory was in preparatory mode for an upcoming assessment and these preparations included the execution of electrical works, construction and inter-laboratory testing. With the completion of these works, the lab is now poised to recommence analysis. He said analyses were being done but this function was put on “pause to do some major electrical work and construction.”

Cole said the department was working with a number of consultants and was also ably supported by the Ministry of Public Health with the necessary finances so that it was able to execute the required remedial work in the laboratory.

He said 2016 was also significant in that the department was singled out in Budget 2017 for reconstruction resources, given that its administration building was “uprooted from its location by the previous administration to build a hotel [the Marriott].”

Finance Minister Winston Jordan in his budget presentation on November 28 announced that $110 million were earmarked “for the Food and Drugs Department to begin construction of a new laboratory and administrative building, a further $65 million have been allocated to procure laboratory supplies, quality control aids, and proficiency testing materials.”

Cole told the Sunday Stabroek he was happy that the government of the day has recognised the importance of the department and its function and is about to provide all the necessary resources so that it could build capacity to facilitate trade by ensuring the testing of agro-processing foods for export and to exercise regulatory oversight on items coming into the country.

He pointed out that the department is getting much more collaboration from a reenergized Customs Department, which is now referring importers to the department to ensure that there is clearance. “I must say that is commendable. I can see the country going in the right direction, the regulatory department going in the right direction…,” he said, adding that government’s interest is also critical to the sustainability of the department’s efforts particularly as regards ensuring substandard food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices are not released onto the local market.

Staffing

Cole told Sunday Stabroek that the GA-FDD is understaffed and he blamed this largely on the unattractive remuneration package being offered. He said proposals have been made for a revision of the remuneration of Food and Drug Inspectors. He said that when these salary scales were decided on, officers needed a Diploma in Pharmacy or a Diploma in Meat and Food Hygiene from the University of Guyana. Now even those staff members with degrees are paid under $100,000 per month. Cole insisted that such important personnel ought not to be paid such small salaries. He reminded that these inspectors have regulatory oversight over two billion-dollar industries. He expressed hope that in 2017, the relevant authorities would address the proposals.

At the moment there are six vacancies for drug inspectors. “No pharmacist in their right mind would take up this offer at Food and Drug Department for less than $100,000 a month because a pharmacist generally gets in excess of $300,000 at any pharmacy,” he stated.

Cole said that food inspectors are very limited as well. There is a staff complement of about 45 persons, with the lab having a staff capacity of about 70% and the inspectorate section being less than 50%. He also hopes that the department will be outfitted with a lawyer and a physician to work along with the Drug and Food Advisory Committees once they are formed, in the interest of public health.  “The Food and Drug Department is really, really short changed as it relates to how impacting our department can be on the society. Because if we can ensure that the hospitals are properly sanitized …given the complement of quality drugs…foods are available at the required nutritional standard, then we would be able to take credit for ensuring that our life expectancy in this country is increased,” he stressed.

Asked how many seizures occurred for 2016, Cole told Sunday Stabroek that the rejected projects amounted to in excess of eight containers and among the products were milk, juice and other beverages and sardines.

He said that this year, the department will continue to place more emphasis on food standards, as well as the enforcement of drug, cosmetics and medical devices standards.

Fatty acid testing

Cole stressed that the GA-FDD has to develop the capacity to ensure that it can do the fatty acid profiling of milk. “We have to get our equipment up and running in the earliest possible time because in the past milk came to Guyana adulterated with palm oil,” he said, adding that it was be possible that milk was coming to Guyana and this information was being withheld (from the labelling). He made mention of the two condensed milk cases that the Department won in the High Court and pointed out that milk with a fat other than milk fat “is considered adulterated in the Food and Drug Act and Regulations.”

According to Cole, the department would have to ensure that it immediately develops its capacity and re-operationalizes the lab to ensure that its competence would span the analysis of juice to determine the percentage of actual juice content in beverages. He explained that this was another area where there was potential for fraud in terms of people claiming that a product was 100% or 50% juice or nectar when it was not.

Cole stated that the department now has a keen interest in the conditions under which drugs are being imported into Guyana. He spoke particularly of high risk drugs which are those that are supposed to be transported under cold storage/refrigeration conditions. Asked to expand on this, Cole said it has been recognized that there may be disruption in the cold chain during transport which can adversely affect the quality, efficacy and safety of those drugs on arrival in Guyana.

The GA-FDD has been asking for the legislation being used – the 1971 Food and Drug Act and 1977 Food and Drug Regulations Act – to be updated. “We have been asking for it to be revised since 2014 but we have been recently advised to use a particular channel and we are hoping that we would receive traction because what we found is that in order for us to protect the consumers against certain categories of substandard items we need to quickly revise the legislation… if not we would continue to expose the Guyanese public to substandard products,” he stressed. The Director used the opportunity to advise customers to be vigilant when buying products. Food and drugs purchased must have an expiry date, the date of manufacture, country of origin, name and address.

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