Weak monitoring standards may have put large numbers of consumers at risk

Vended drinking water:

Water woes?

Risks associated with purchasing drinking water from retail vendors are sufficiently high for patrons to exercise the precaution of ensuring that their purchases are made from licensed operators, knowledgeable persons in the sector have told Stabroek Business.

Since last week, when the Government Analyst-Food and Drugs Department (GAFDD) disclosed that some establishments currently offering water for sale are not licensed by the Department to do so, Stabroek Business has spoken with three vendors, two of whom conceded that at one time or another, they not only had no licences to sell water but manifestly failed to adhere to the sanitation-related protocols associated with the cleaning of receptacles in which water is sold. “It is true that quite a few vendors have no licences to sell water and some of us are not entirely in compliance with the rules governing sanitation,” one of the three vendors told Stabroek Business.

“It’s a risky situation,” one vendor told Stabroek Business. Even if we are sure about the water that is consumed in our homes, there is really no way of knowing where all of the various vendors, restaurants, snackettes and lunch ladies who offer local beverages get their water from. I’m not saying that they are not careful about where they get their supplies from. I am just making the point to demonstrate the extent to which we might be at risk,” he said.

Director of the GAFDD
Marlan Cole

 Whilst admitting to a high degree of delinquency in the sector, the vendors told this newspaper that the absence of an adherence of standards is largely a function of the absence of the level of oversight that ought to attend the selling of a product “as sensitive as drinking water.”

Director of the GAFDD, Marlan Cole was quoted in the last edition of the Sunday Stabroek as saying that most of the city’s water vendors who have recently been found to be unlicenced were previously compliant and two of the four vendors with whom this newspaper spoke admitted that there had been periods when they had offered water for sale without the requisite credentials. Another, a licenced vendor, told Stabroek Business that while businesses offering water for sale had a duty to adhere to their legal obligations “it would be more than helpful if the Food and Drugs Department is able to keep the sector on its toes. Unfortunately, not everyone can be relied upon to obey the regulations or to ensure the safety of the water that they sell,” he added.

When contacted by Stabroek Business on Monday, Cole openly conceded deficiencies in the existing monitoring

mechanism, while pointing out that the inadequate periodicity of the checks on water vendors was a function of the “serious human resource shortcomings” of the Department.

“The few Inspectors at our disposal have a range of tasks to perform with the monitoring of water vending being only one of them,” Cole said, though he admitted that the monitoring deficiency possibly gave rise to “unacceptable health risks” to consumers.

 Each of the vendors with whom this newspaper spoke said that the weakness of the GAFDD’s oversight arrangements represented what one of them described as an “open invitation” to errant vendors to disregard the regulations. One of them, who claims to have been in the business for four years, said that he could not recall ever having had an inspection visit, though he stressed that he had always been a licenced vendor. He said that amongst the established vendors there were concerns not only about the equipment being used by other service providers and the premises on which they run their businesses, but also the sources from which they acquire the water.

 The private water supply services emerged several years ago on account of the inability of the state-run agency to provide a trustworthy potable water supply service. As the sector has grown, however, questions have arisen about the quality of the water being offered by some vendors. Cole has conceded the need for more safeguards pointing out that it is a challenge that the GAFDD is prepared to tackle more robustly as long as it can be supported with the resources with which to do so. 

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