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State regulatory agency admits that unapproved bottled water likely being sold on the local market


Monday, December 02, 2019

Bottled water has gone from a convenience to a well-demanded alternative in Jamaica, with thousands of people choosing it over tap water.

This has led to an explosion in the brands of bottled water on sale across the island, with a new brand seeming to hit the market almost every other week.

But there is no list of the brands of bottled water which have been approved for drinking in Jamaica, and the agencies mandated to ensure that products on sale in Jamaica are safe — the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) and its sister agency the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (NCRA) — have accepted that some bottled water could be on the shelves without being tested.

This means that Jamaicans could be buying some bottled water which have levels of bacteria or chemical contaminants above industry standards or guidelines.

While established companies that supply bottled water will have an incentive to do all they can to make sure their products are safe to protect the reputation of their brands, smaller suppliers, with their eyes on making a profit, might not share this commitment to quality -- and there is no guarantee for Jamaicans as to which brand of water on the shelves is safe.

Under Jamaican law, locally produced bottled water is monitored by the Food Inspectorate Department of the NCRA and the producers are required to be registered with the BSJ. Imported bottled water is also monitored. Inspectors conduct market surveys and port of entry inspections to verify compliance of these products. These items are also subject to label assessment and product testing.

Executive director of the BSJ, Hopeton Heron told the Jamaica Observer that the processing of bottled water is regulated under the Standards Act, which requires that each establishment be registered prior to offering the product for sale to the public.

“Any company that trades bottled or coconut water must be registered through the BSJ and the NCRA registration system. After registration, the company has the right to trade and to put its products in retail outlets, supermarkets, wherever. It is from there that the regulatory and compliance arm takes over,” said Heron.

He noted that under its Client Servicing Programme, the BSJ guides processors in the process of implementing food safety systems to ensure that best-quality products are offered to the consuming public.

To be registered, the producers must comply with Good Manufacturing Practices under the JS36 Standard and the Processed Food Act, which also necessitates that their products be subjected to conformance testing.

If an establishment is producing processed food items but is not registered, the products can be removed from the shelves and, if necessary, the establishment can be closed.

That is the work of the NCRA, and its CEO, Lorice Edwards Brown, told the Observer that the entity focuses on registration assessment which includes physical visits to processors, documentary checks, sampling, analysis of test results, and post-inspection assessment to determine if the products are fit for consumption.

“The registration assessment is done annually but there are periodic visits based on the risk assessments that we carry out of the establishments. We also do some investigations, because if it is a product that we are not aware of and we get some information…then we need to check this.

“So, if its 'ABC Water Company' or 'ABC' brand that we are not aware of, then we will go and we will conduct an assessment of the product and the establishment,” said Edwards Brown.

She said if Jamaicans go into a store and see a new brand of water being sold they can call the NCRA to check if it has been approved.

Edwards Brown noted that while the NCRA does not now publish a list of approved brands of bottled water that could be introduced in the future.

“We are trying to do that and we are taking into consideration some of the feedback that we have had on it. The issue that we are grappling with is what some entities have put forward to us, that the information is not real time,” said Edwards Brown.

She argued that the NCRA could produce a list on April 1 and two days later another product is approved and it is not on the list, or the approval for another brand would be withdrawn and it would still be on the list.

“So, one of the issues we are trying to address is how do we provide the information in a real time basis, which is what some of the stakeholders are saying. Because, if their name is not on the list as of the date we published it, we would be saying to consumers that their product is not approved. That is their contention, and we are trying to be fair to all.

“So, while we understand making the information as public as possible, we also understand the other side and we are trying to see how best we can provide this information in a transparent way,” said the NCRA boss.

According to Edwards Brown, the NCRA is in discussions with all the stakeholders in an effort to determine a system that is fair to the producers while providing valuable information to consumers.

She said the best advice her agency can give to Jamaicans is to check the labelling when they are going to spend their hard-earned cash.

“Some of the things you should look for are, does it tell you an expiry date, depending on the product -- as I am moving it from water alone to general consumer products. You should also check [if the label states] who is the manufacturer, so that there is traceability in case you need to go to whomever you bought it from.”

Edwards Brown noted the consumers should also check the label for the address of the manufacturer and contact information.

“And if you are in doubt, call us, because we have no hesitation at all in assisting anyone,” said Edwards Brown.