When profits trump the health of a nation…

Lessons for Guyana from effects of fake food imports into Africa

Director of the GAFDD, Minister of Public Marlan Cole

Even as Guyana persists in what, over the years, has been a far from successful effort to stave off the proliferation of fake food imports resulting from illegal relabelling and transactions involving the lucrative importation of ‘cut price’ fake foods, mostly from parts of Asia, reports from Africa, particularly, suggest that others, as well, are paying a high price for their failure to fend off illegal fake food imports.

A report from Quartz Africa, an international news site launched in Africa in June 2015 and which aims to cover a global view of the continent and monitored by the Stabroek Business – sites examples of “food fraud” in Africa, driven by corrupt transactions widely believed to be informed by collusion between importers and state officials. There have been instances (in Nigeria) the report says that have resulted in deaths from tainted foods and have left entire populations vulnerable to health threats linked to consumption of tainted food imports.

Not only is the tragic incidence of health issues arising from fake food and foods otherwise unfit for human consumption prevalent in Africa but according to the Quartz Report published in March this year the practice is part of “a global explosion of food fraud, when companies purposely mislead the public about products.” The Quartz article cites a report emanating from the United States’ Grocery Manufact-urers Association,  asserting that “food fraud affects approximately 10 percent of all commercially sold food products and costs the global food industry between $10 billion and $15 billion annually.”

Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence

The limited data available on food fraud in Africa, the Quartz report says, “is alarming.” According to the report, recent research by the Tanzania Industries estimates that “over 50% of all goods, including food, drugs and construction materials, imported into Tanzania are fake.” The report states that anecdotal evidence suggests that “rates could be between 10% and 50%, depending on the food category and the country.” The article further states that in Nigeria “supermarket shelves and open-air market stalls are…………  stocked with counterfeit products” whilst in that country “there is milk powder with no animal protein.”

Guyana has had its own stories to tell about imported fake foods and foods that may otherwise pose health risks to consumers. As has been the case in Africa, instances of attempting to market foods and other goods not cleared for sale on the local market  have been reportedly linked to corrupt transactions involving importers seeking to make ‘a killing’ off cut price fake and/or expired products and corrupt state officials. In recent years there has been at least one known instance of the forging of the signature of the serving Director of the GAFDD, Marlan Cole. In other instances there have been reports of improper pressure being placed on the GAFDD to release consignments of goods not cleared by the Department for sale locally.

More recently, the GAFDD has had to deal with instances of the illegal relabeling of consignments of food items being imported into Guyana. Two weeks ago the Stabroek Business reported that Cole had distanced himself from what appeared to be the illegal importation of consignments of sardines and ovaltine that had been improperly imported. Cole had said that his Department’s decision to deny entry to the two sets of items “was guided by the Courts, the Inspectors’ report” which he said had made “a professional judgement on these matters in the best interest of the consuming public.”

Asked to comment on the unfolding situation relating to the relabeled sardines and ovaltine, Cole would only say that he continues to be guided in his actions by the regulations governing the importation and sale of foods and drugs on the local market though Stabroek Business has been reliably informed by a source close to the matter that differences may have arisen between the GAFDD Director and Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence over issues relating to the functioning of the department. And in a development that may point to a likely investigation into the relabeled sardines and ovaltine, Stabroek Business has seen a copy of a letter dated April 19 and directed to the GAFDD’s Acting Director Sears (Cole has been on a period of vacation leave) requesting “relevant information” relating to “the relabelling  of a shipment of ovaltine” and “the relabeling of a shipment of sardines,” both “imported by G. Bacchus enterprise of Lot 51 Rampoor, Corriverton.”

Africa, the Quartz article reports, is faced with a much wider illegal food imports problem arising out of the importation of sub-standard or fake foods. Many Ghanaians, the article says, regularly consume palm oil “laced with a food coloring called Sudan IV which is widely recognized as a carcinogen. In Uganda, formalin —an embalming agent—is used to keep meat and fish free from flies and seemingly fresh for days.” Across Africa, there are reported incidences of plastic rice …………………… packaged as high-grade rice, and corn powder dyed with Sudan IV, labeled as chili pepper.”

As a net importer of canned and packaged foods Guyana is one of a number of developing countries that remain vulnerable to the repackaging and relabeling of fake foods. Given the current focus on healthy foods, a number of small firms, lacking the resources of their bigger competitors, are deceiving consumers by employing cheap software to create labels to make nutrition-related claims that they cannot substantiate.

Retail vendors located at particular vantage points in Georgetown and elsewhere in coastal Guyana have become popular for the retail of suspected fake food items, their businesses having survived the complaints of importers of established brands as well as the efforts of the GAFDD to close them down.

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