EVERYONE on the food safety value chain is responsible for ensuring that food is handled and prepared safely.
Consequentially, the Government, farmers and other producers, food transporters, food business operators, food handlers, and customers are all responsible for ensuring a safe food supply nationally.
Responsibilities of the Jamaican Government
Presently in Jamaica there are multi-government agencies with overlapping responsibilities for regulating food safety. The Government of Jamaica therefore needs to establish a regulatory mandate that clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of each agency. This mandate is needed so that regulatory agencies can be more efficient in carrying out their functions.
A new approach to food handlers' certification in Jamaica is also necessary at this time; this new approach will allow for greater accountability and vigilance at all levels of the food supply value chain. For too long has the food handling industry operated without mandatory requirements, such as the employment of persons trained at the level of a food safety manager within food establishments.
This requirement is particularly important based on the size and nature of the operation. Food safety managers are individuals trained at an advanced level in food safety. According to international best practices, high-risk food establishments employing more than five persons are required by law in many countries to employ a food safety manager. Food safety managers are employed by food industry operators to ensure the implementation of regulatory requirements, enforcement of food safety standards and policies, as well as the evaluation of food handling practices, in order to gain compliance with legal guidelines within the food premises.
As of 2019 it is estimated that worldwide there are 9 million cases of typhoid fever occurring annually, resulting in about 110,000 deaths per year. Whilst the risk of typhoid fever is low in Jamaica, it cannot be forgotten that there have been numerous incidences of the disease reported amongst the local population — and even when symptoms no longer exist, approximately 5 per cent of the reported cases will be chronic carriers. Chronic carriers of typhoid have the potential to make others sick, especially through food and in situations where there is poor personal hygiene and sanitation practices.
A more stringent and comprehensive food handlers' certification system is therefore required, not just to ensure that the nation advances towards having individuals who are trained at a higher level in food safety but also for the institution of a system that will prevent those persons who are carriers of infectious food-borne diseases from being certified as fit for handling food.
Shared responsibility between government, food manufacturers, food processors
To date in Jamaica there is no mandatory or regulatory requirement for food processors and manufacturers to implement a food safety management system within their establishment; yet food recalls, food allergen management issues, the absence of systems to ensure the prevention of food-borne illness, and other related food safety issues are amongst the many problems associated with food manufacturing and processing. Mandatory implementation of appropriate processes and technologies throughout the supply chain, such as in food production facilities, is the most efficient method to guarantee that customers receive food that complies with the essential food safety standards. The implementation of food safety management systems such as Hazard Analysis Cortical Control Point (HACCP), Safe Quality Foods (SQF), and International Standards Organization 2200 (ISO 2200) should not be discretionary and done mostly in food production facilities exporting their goods. Agreeably, the implementation of such systems is not for everyone in the industry, however the health of the population needs to be protected by the implementation of proactive systems of food safety management that identify hazards ahead of time so as to avert any associated risk.
Urbanisation as well as some economic factors have led to more persons demanding cheaper food on the go in Jamaica. Street food vending provides such an option for the Jamaican populace. Street food vending is also enshrined in the culture of many countries including Jamaica, albeit the food safety risks associated with street food operations are no less than those that operate within fixed food establishments. Improper food handling practices, poor hand hygiene practices, improper solid waste management, absence of potable running water, inadequate food protection, failure to observe required temperatures for food, and lack of access to toilet facilities have always been some of the many environmental health challenges associated with these types of operations. The need to regulate the industry and license those establishments which are licensable should no longer be disregarded.
Shared responsibility between government and consumers
Like all other stakeholders in the food safety value chain, consumers have a role to play in ensuring that food safety standards are maintained on the food safety value chain. The time has therefore come for Jamaican consumers to educate themselves about food safety requirements; consumers should also become more vocal on non-compliance issues. In support to the responsibilities of the consumer is the need for the institution of a regulated food establishment rating system nationally. A system that supports publicly displayed scores and ratings of food establishments will encourage food business operators' compliance with regulatory requirements while at the same time allow the consumer to make informed choices prior to conducting business with a food establishment.
Shared responsibility between government regulatory agencies and food establishment operators
Surveillance data must guide the operations of a food regulatory system; the Government is therefore responsible for providing laboratory services for testing of food and safeguarding against all associated food safety hazards. Surveillance systems that capture incidence of food-borne illnesses and associated symptoms will also provide valuable information for timely public health response.
All food manufacturers and distributors, as well as others on the food safety continuum, should be required to implement traceability systems. It is therefore imperative that food safety regulators across ministries collaborate and promulgate a national food recall policy for the food industry. A national food recall policy will allow for the rapid identification and withdrawal of unsafe food lots in a timely manner — thereby averting public health catastrophes.
Dr Karlene Atkinson is a public health specialist and lecturer at the School of Public Health, University of Technology, Jamaica.