Arresting corruption in food safety system

The announcement last week that the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) had intercepted a boat containing cargo (foreign chicken and mosquito coils) seemingly intended for illegal placement on the local market, makes two points; first that the GRA, through its enforcement mechanisms, now appears more determined to thwart customs evasion by smugglers and to improve on the collection of such revenues as accrue to the state. What it also does is to add another modest tier of deterrent to what has become the prevalent practice of tampering with the very fabric of the country’s food safety regime by importing foods – including baby foods and children’s cereals – that circumvent the oversight infrastructure (fragile as it has remained over many years) of the Government Analyst-Food & Drugs Department (GAFDD) or else, are able to secure questionable  ‘clearance’ to enter the country and be placed on the local market through well-placed functionaries who are prepared to ‘flex’ with the importer in ways that break the law.

In this instance, one expects that once the GRA has done its own work as far as ‘processing’ the goods and the taking of the requisite Customs-related action are concerned then the food safety dimension to the issue (as far as the chicken is concerned) will then kick in and it will be the turn of the GAFDD to make a determination and apply the necessary action.

What the recent chicken/mosquito coil incident bears out is the fact that weak oversight mechanism still make it relatively easy for smuggling to flourish. One of the weaknesses in the system that we never seem to have been able to remedy has been the failure of Customs and the GAFDD to work together in order to ensure that the latter benefits more generously from the wider oversight which Customs enjoys insofar as imports are concerned.

That, however, is not the only issue here. Much of the bigger problem has to do with the fact that some importers appear to be able, frequently, to circumvent (or overturn) rulings by the GAFDD, which are based on food safety regulations, and secure free passes for the importation of foods which ought, correctly, not to be allowed into the country and onto the local market.

The reality is that, over time, the extent of the GAFDD’s  clout has been compromised, first, by its chronic lack of human and technical resources and secondly the vulnerability of the Department to what one might call irregular interventions that seek to circumvent the law. More than that, there has been at least one relatively recent instance that we are aware of (and there is the likelihood that there would have been others) where a supposedly irregular import transaction was effected on  the basis of a forged document.

Whether there may not be a case for resource-sharing between the GRA/Customs in the matter of the former taking advantage of intelligence gathered by the latter’s Law Enforcement and Investigation Division (LEID) is certainly   something to think about since the GAFDD has no first-hand inspection system at ports of entry and must therefore depend on Customs’ support in the enforcement of its own mandate.  Here, it is no secret that there have been times when the quality of the relationship between Customs and the GAFDD had been sufficiently ‘iffy’ as to cause the latter not to benefit (or only to benefit minimally) from cooperation with Customs which meant that insofar as inspecting food imports was concerned the GAFDD was left more-or-less to its own devices. In recent years, however, this newspaper has been involved in at least one public forum designed to enhance collaboration between the two state agencies though we are altogether uncertain as to the full and final outcomes of those consultations. The other point to be made here, of course, has to do with the fact that even the most stringent institutional scrutiny can be undermined by “instructions” emanating from sources possessing sufficient clout to suddenly cause the watchdogs to look the other way.

All of this, of course, has to be seen in a wider context, that extends not only to the health and safety of consumers but to the meteoric rise of the multi-billion dollar fake foods industry and the global and lucrative corruption rackets that have derived from the distribution of such foods, particularly in poor countries (like Guyana) that are vulnerable to both weak monitoring systems and a proclivity for corruption. Some months ago an announcement was made regarding the planned construction of new premises to house the GAFDD, which initiative, we are told, will be attended by the equipping of the facility with tools that will support it in its laboratory-related work. One notes that this announcement has come at a time when the country’s focus on its export markets demand that it raises the standards of its food safety guarantees. Of course, there is also the need for us to be able to provide assurances that have to do with guaranteeing the bona fides of our imports…so that while the promise of better-appointed premises for the GAFDD is all well and good, it still does not answer the question as to how effective that would be in fending off determined corruption-driven efforts to sweep regulations to one side and continue to endanger the health of the nation. We cannot afford to allow what already appears to be a bad situation to become even worse.