The Government Analyst-Food & Drugs Department’s (GAFDD) disclosure earlier this week about the quality of the safety protocols practised by eating houses in Regions Four and Six, though acutely disturbing is really not at all surprising. What is worrying is that the findings are, in all likelihood, a microcosm of the wider national situation a probability which the GAFDD’s Director, Marlan Cole says he subscribes to. The findings on various types of transgressions that render the foods prepared by many eating houses unsafe for consumption come at a time when, even without the benefit of statistics, it is possible to discern that increasing numbers of Guyanese are favouring ‘eating out,’ whether it be fine dining or street foods.
The timing of the GAFDD’s findings, too, is inconvenient insofar as it comes at a time when the circumstances resulting from the country’s oil and gas pursuits and what, in recent months, has been a marked ‘playing up’ of Guyana’s tourism potential, would have drawn a greater level of external attention to Guyana. Reports that point to a high-risk food industry are likely to serve as something of a ‘turn off’ to potential travellers to Guyana, whether these be holidaymakers or potential investors.
What is noteworthy about the GAFDD’s disclosures is that, first, it points to weaknesses in our food service regime which appear to be growing worse or at least not getting any better. That apart, setting aside its customary promises to conduct more sensitization sessions the GAFDD itself appears powerless to roll back what has become a tidal wave of indiscretions by some proprietors in the food service industry.
For several years now the GAFDD has been caught up in a web of under-resourcing and the attendant problem of not being able to effect all of its responsibilities as completely and competently as it would presumably wish to. State promises to invest in the upgrading of the Department have been languishing for several years, the reason being, frankly, that the role of the Department has always appeared not to be too prominently positioned on the scale of priorities.
Setting aside its critical role in administering and, as well, enforcing food safety standards, the GAFDD is also saddled with the onerous task of staving off an insidious and ongoing attack on the country’s national health system, courtesy of the proliferation of corruption-driven fake and expired or near expired drugs. Worryingly, we have, it seems, been experiencing instances in which ‘dodgy’ drugs have impacted directly and negatively on our health care system.
When we spoke with the Director of the GAFDD following the release of the findings of its recent food safety probe he appeared to be making two points. The first was an appeal to the various entities with responsibility for food safety-related monitoring services to support the work of his own Department in what, in effect, would be a policing job in the food service sector. The second was a direct appeal to the proprietors of the delinquent food service establishments to get their respective ‘acts’ together. No one, of course, is convinced of the likelihood of a high level of positive response to appeals for self-regulation.
The option that never seems to be sufficiently ventilated is that of the need for an enhanced awareness on the part of the state-run public health services to what the GAFDD says in its findings are the serious gaps in the application of the requisite hygiene and safety-related protocols in the food service industry. Even now, proprietors of delinquent eating establishments have no immediate reason for worry since the GAFDD has offered no indication that we have the capacity for an immediate and robust response to the problem that would include rigorous sanctions against transgressors. It may well be that the yardstick used for determining priorities has to do with the high visibility of the problem which, some might argue, does not apply in instances where the negative effects of a circumstance may not be readily apparent. The reality is, however, that not only is the problem not going away but, conceivably, it is already having a knock-on effect on our health services and on the health of the nation as a whole.
As Mr. Cole himself concedes since the GAFDD’s probe has, up until now, been limited to just two Regions it is impossible, for the time being, to pronounce on its scale from a national perspective. Worryingly, he fears and he says so, that what the Department’s probes in the other Regions will ‘turn up,’ going forward, is likely to be at least as disturbing as what has already been found in those Regions where the survey has been completed.
Outside of what the GAFDD has had to say about its findings in Regions Four and Six the circumstances now appear to demand a much more comprehensive pronouncement from the Ministry of Public Health about just how it proposes to tackle what, contextually, could easily metamorphose into a national emergency in the period ahead.