Food and Drug Department toothless to close restaurants
Stabroek News
April 13, 2004

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There is little enforcement of the food safety laws in restaurants which need to be monitored more to ensure consumer safety.

"If your mandate is to protect the consumer, you must be able to take action," says Marilyn Collins, the Director of the Food and Drug Department.

She thinks her agency needs more legislative support to enforce the food safety laws, which have been weakened in the absence of proper monitoring.

Food and Drug is responsible for ensuring that harmful food is not sold to the public, while the City Council's Meat and Food Hygiene Depart-ment has the statutory responsibility for monitoring eating houses or restaurants.

Collins says the Food and Drugs Act has enough scope to give her department the jurisdiction to inspect restaurants, but inspections are done primarily by the city inspectorate. Although there is some collaboration with the city, Collins explained that her department responds primarily to consumer complaints, while the city mainly inspects for hygiene violations.

But there are no legislative guidelines defining the relationship between the two agencies and Collins thinks that the various laws have only created a situation where there is not a clear delineation of functions. Some functions overlap between Food and Drug and the city and other agencies with related responsibilities, including units within the agriculture and labour ministries.

While she believes inter- agency co-operation is important and says it should be maintained, she also thinks that the duplication of responsibilities can result in situations where some agencies may abdicate their duties.

"Some areas in the food chain are not being addressed on the assumption that one department is doing it," she notes.

In a recent case Food and Drug inspectors found quantities of food that expired since 2000 in the kitchen of one of the city's leading restaurants. Five days later, more expired food was found in a van belonging to the restaurant.

Food and Drug's intervention came after a child reportedly suffered food poisoning after eating food from the restaurant.

The restaurant's managers claimed the food was mistakenly purchased and they were in process of disposing of it when inspectors visited.

After the find the Food and Drug Department advised the restaurant to stop selling food for public consumption. They also submitted a report of their findings to the city, whose inspectors also visited the restaurant.

The city's inspectors found multiple hygiene violations, including employees who were not medically certified to handle food. The city advised the management of the restaurant to correct the violations and did not act on the report of the Food and Drug Department, failing to cite the reason why.

Stabroek News was told by an official that inspectors had found several serious violations at the restaurant prior to this most recent case. It was brought to the attention of the restaurant's managers who were asked to take corrective measures.

No action has been taken against the restaurant which also ignored Food and Drug's advisory by pointing out that it did not have the jurisdiction to act.

Stabroek News made repeated attempts to contact the city's Chief Meat and Food Inspector Andrew Garnette over the last week for a comment but was unsuccessful.

"There needs to be a clear-cut demarcation," says Dr Chatterpaul Ramcharran, Director of the Guyana National Bureau of Standards and former Director of the Food and Drug Department.

Ramcharran believes that conditions have improved but says that better surveillance is needed to ensure that the laws are enforced.

He says because of Food and Drug's limited manpower, collaboration with the city has been necessary to ensure effective monitoring. But while he feels that the legislation does not give Food and Drug much scope to deter offenders, he is firmly of the view that it is the city which should be enforcing the laws.

"I don't think the Food and Drug Department should have the power to close restaurants. The city council needs to be more vigilant; they need to do more surveillance work," he says.

"The Food and Drug Department did its part," he notes of the recent case, adding, "the city council needs to take more enforcement action."

President of the Consumers Association of Guyana Patrick Dial says consumers agree that the laws need strengthening, especially since the Meat and Food Hygiene Department appears to be floundering.

"Monitoring is not adequate... There appears to be some inhibitions about it," says Dial, who is of the view that in the current system there is no guarantee that offenders will not continue to violate the laws because the laws are not being enforced.

He believes the laws need to be consolidated and modernised to sort out the grey areas, such as the relationship between Food and Drug and its city council counterpart.

One of the reasons, he says, is to ensure such situations where City Hall essentially countermanded the Food and Drug department, do not happen.

And although, like Ram-charran, he thinks the city should have overarching jurisdiction, he says his association is fully aware that the city's department is not functioning adequately.

It is for this reason that he thinks that jurisdiction ought to be relegated to the Food and Drug department or another agency like the Bureau of Standards.

Collins agrees that there are still grey areas in the application of the Food and Drug Act in tandem with the Municipal and District Councils Act. And while she is fully cognisant that her agency does not have the resources to assume the complete responsibility for restaurants, she does believe that its responsibility for consumer safety warrants that it be invested with the responsibility to take action.

In this regard she says her agency needs more of the statutory power which now rests in the hands of the city - the power to order closures.

Meanwhile, Collins says that some of the grey areas in the laws are now the focus of both the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations and the government. She says it has been recommended that a Food Control Authority be set up to look at all areas of food safety, especially the inspection and certification aspects.