It would do both the health sector as a whole and the food safety authorities, specifically, a power of good, if they pay more focussed attention to the surfeit of information being disseminated globally on food safety. Setting aside those entities directly responsible for overseeing food safety protocols, government as a whole, ought as well, to have a substantive interest in our food safety standards particularly since, apart from the implications of these for the health of our population, there are also the potential implications of our food safety standards for the country’s tourism pros-pects and by extension for our export earnings.
One of the issues made clear in a recent RENTOKIL report titled ‘Global Trends in Food Processing’ has to do with the concerns that exist in the United States about the high levels of food-related illnesses and the treatment costs accruing to individuals and to the state as a whole. The other point that is made strongly in the report and in other submissions on the subject, has to do with a significantly enhanced assertiveness of the part of the US authorities in arresting the importation of foods that might potentially be harmful for consumers, an assertiveness that commenced with the 2010 implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
A point to note here – and reference is made to it in an article published in this issue of the Stabroek Business – has to do with the fact that the enhanced concern in the USA (and Canada) about their domestic food safety bona fides coincides with the emergence of our own agro-processing sector which presumably possesses market ambitions that include North America.
While it should be stressed that up until now no high-profile anomalous situation has arisen in the matter of the foods from Guyana being imported into the US, the point should be made that such imports are modest in their volumes and are confined largely to diaspora markets where acceptance based on familiarity is commonplace. The reality is, however, that as the export ambitions of our manufacturing sector continue to grow (and we believe that it will) increased volumes of exports to the US (and Canada) and the spread of some brands beyond the diaspora markets, will raise the profile of those (Guyana) exports and draw heightened attention to them as ‘targets’ for food safety-related scrutiny in the US.
One of the assumptions that underpin the provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is that foods entering the US from exporting countries would have, before being exported, been subjected to the various standards-related tests set out in the Act. This imposes upon the exporting countries the responsibility of acquiring the testing capabilities to meet the required standards embodied in the FSMA.
This, insofar as Guyana is concerned, is where the rubber hits the road. No one seriously questions the view that whether in terms of facilities, monitoring and testing equipment or human resources, the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department (GAFDD) is seriously under-resourced and whether or not it can withstand the rigorous scrutiny of the FSMA’s requirements is certainly questionable. One barometer that can be used in this regard is the recent revelation by the GAFDD of the outcomes of checks done on local eating houses, the results of which are an indictment of cooked food safety standards and certainly (as we have said before) something that will not go unnoticed by persons who anticipate visiting Guyana in the near future.
But also implicit in the outcome of the GAFDD’s recent probe of restaurants is the revelation that the Department itself lacks the capacity to effectively monitor and enforce, the evidence of this reposing in the fact that by the GAFDD’s own admission, what it found during its recent inspection visits were conditions, which, on account of its own weak monitoring systems, had been allowed to fester over a period of time.
There have been far too few serious attempts, over the years, to bring government to account for its protracted failure to put in place an adequate food safety standards infrastructure which includes immediate and meaningful investment in the comprehensive upgrading of the GAFDD without any more of the promises and prevarication that have obtained over several political administrations. The neglect in doing so up until now, we believe, reposes in what has been a failure to look beyond Guyana and to seek to make those critical linkages between our food safety standards and the well-being of our country as a whole. This, as the Stabroek Business has repeatedly pointed out, applies not only to the health of our population but to other critical areas of our development-related welfare including earnings from our export and tourism sectors, both of which have the potential to be major contributors to the country’s economy.
While it is becoming more than a trifle clichéd to link every incremental step we make in one development direction or another to an approaching oil and gas economy, the reality is that enthusiasm for Guyana from a visitor perspective is likely to decline once we develop a reputation – real or imagined – for foods, some of which are ‘dodgy’ in the extent of their wholesomeness. Setting aside the fact that we owe it to our fast-emerging manufacturing sector to provide them with the testing resources that affords them confidence in what they export, the reality is that a country’s food, be it that which is locally consumed or its exports is part of its international image and it is high time that our food safety infrastructure reflects an understanding of that reality.
Incidentally, there is, as well, need for a far more robust private sector lobby for significantly enhanced infrastructure to ensure more effective testing.