Food safety: On a hiding to nowhere

Last week, the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department (GA/FDD) dispatched a letter to the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) to prohibit a named US-based company from facilitating transactions pertaining to the importation of consignments of foods into Guyana on the grounds that the said company had been involved in arrangements allowing for imports that do not meet the requirements of the country’s Food and Drugs Act. It is as yet unclear whether the GRA will accede to the GA/FDD’s request since an opinion articulated in response to the request has suggested that the GRA’s accession might amount to a restriction on the company’s right to conduct business. The events of recent months, that is, the proliferation of attempts to import containers of food items into the country without the clearance of GA/FDD, suggests that its request to the GRA derives from its mounting frustration level over its failure to stop or, seemingly, even reduce the practice. The Department, we need to remind ourselves, is acting in an effort to stave off threats to local food safety, a concern which, on the basis of the available evidence, has not been, for several years, particularly high on the government’s ‘to do’ list.

The repeated observation that the GA/FDD is hopelessly stretched in terms of its ability to keep unauthorized food imports out of Guyana has, for years, been met by (barring the various empty promises of remedial action made from time to time) an incomprehensible indifference that is altogether out of sync with the global focus on food safety evidenced in the last decade or so. The high global profile afforded the issue of food safety in recent times has been driven largely by the United States, through its 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act which, among other things, outlines stringent conditions for food imports into that country.

At the more global level government has failed, over the years, to position the GA/FDD to stay abreast of the work of institutions like the Global Food Safety Partnership which was launched by the World Bank five years ago, and the industry-driven Global Food Safety Initiative. These organizations provide leadership and guidance on the food safety management systems necessary for safety along the supply chain paying particular attention to monitoring the movement of foods from one country to another.  Their objectives are realized through the collaborative efforts of food safety experts from retail, manufacturing and food service companies, as well as from international organizations, governments, academia and service providers to the global food industry. These bodies meet at technical working group and stakeholder levels to share knowledge and promote a harmonized approach to managing food safety.

So that while the GA/FDD may have a pretty formidable constitutional cloak (the Food and Drugs Act and its attendant regulations) on its side, its deficiencies, including its lack of awareness of the global food safety institutions and their agenda inhibit its ability to effectively reinforce its own regulations. More than that, the limited effectiveness of the GA/FDD is also located in various inbuilt and difficult to remove irregularities that seriously inhibit the department in the execution of its functions.

First, it is evident that the authority of the GA/FDD has come under increasing challenge from a new breed of wheeler dealers whose focus on making money renders them altogether indifferent either to laws governing food importation or to the potential impact of their illegal and dangerous   business dealings on the health of consumers. Perhaps more to the point it seems that, all too frequently, importers have access to officialdom and by extension to the kinds of ‘concessions’ and ‘waivers’ that exempt them from the very laws and regulations put there to protect consumers. Inevitably and entirely understandably, those arrangements that circumvent the known and entrenched rules and regulations raise well-founded suspicions of corruption. There are usually no convincing responses to these accusations.

Equally worrying is the effect that these developments are likely to have on the morale of the GA/FDD personnel and on the esteem of the organization. Increasingly, it appears that the Department is caught between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place,’ the former being a breed of rapacious and altogether unmindful business houses and the latter being a combination of a dangerously weak enforcement capacity and what so often appears to be no shortage of people in authority who are prepared to bend the rules.

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