Tue | Jan 28, 2020

Editorial | Standards regulator asleep on the job?

Published:Friday | December 13, 2019 | 12:31 AM

We are being driven to conclude that the decision by the former government, consummated by the Andrew Holness administration, of removing product-compliance oversight from the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) and giving it to a new agency was either a bad idea or a policy that was badly implemented. For the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (NCRA), it is becoming increasingly obvious, isn’t doing a good job.

In the span of three days, two significant reports by this newspaper highlighted failures by the agency, with potentially grave consequences to the health and safety of Jamaicans. In the event, Jamaicans could well be consuming spoiled, or contaminated food, or could be facing the prospect of their homes, constructed with hollow, concrete blocks, tumbling around them.

The BSJ establishes standards for goods and services produced and/or sold in Jamaica. Up to 2016, it had a division that was supposed to ensure that those standards were complied with. There were often complaints over the unit’s performance, especially the absence of aggression with which it pursued shoddy goods. That was part of the reason, as well as the need to address a supposed conflict of interest, why Portia Simpson Miller’s government, in 2015, announced the plan to spin off the regulatory department from the rest of the BSJ to establish a separate policy authority.

“The conflict stems from the fact that the Bureau performs conformity assessments, sets standards, and then seeks to regulate the standards it has set,” the then information minister, Sandrea Falconer, said at the time. So, unfettered by these conflicts and constraints, the NCRA was expected to bring new energy to the process. That isn’t being felt.

A random survey last week by this newspaper of supermarkets in the Kingston Metropolitan Region, including the community of Portmore, revealed that several had, on open display, a wide range of expired, or nearly expired, products for sale. Some of these items were discounted, suggesting that the business operators were aware of the state of the goods.

Both under the Processed Foods Act and the Standards Act, certified inspectors can order the removal of products that do not meet health or quality standards and cause persons deemed to be in violation of the law to be charged for prosecution.

Lorice Edwards, the head of the NCRA, reported that her agency conducted more than 900 checks of establishments per quarter. Unfortunately, her inspectors seem not to have gone to any of the stores visited by our reporters. Neither did Ms Edwards have at hand further, and specific, data on the actions of her inspectors.

GET ON WITH ITS JOB

It is appreciated that consumers often complain directly to the Consumer Affairs Commission, which might coordinate with the health ministry, pushing the NCRA to the periphery of the loop. But the same argument is far less plausible with regard to the NCRA’s regulatory role over the standards for concrete blocks.

Two and a half years ago, there were 128 block manufacturers registered with the BSJ, which, presumably, meant that they complied with its standards for their products. Now, there are only 55 such operators. It could be assumed that the 57 per cent decline is the result of a shake-out in the market for block makers. So the registered manufacturers are all who now exist.

That, however, would be a myth. Large numbers of block manufacturers still openly operate in Jamaica, with neither registration nor certification by the BSJ. And, it seems, no policing by the NCRA. Indeed, in May 2017, there were nearly 350 block makers known to the BSJ.

Consumers, of course, should, insofar as possible, buy from reputable manufacturers with certified quality assurance. But as we noted four years ago, when this matter confronted the BSJ, the safety issues, or more to the point, potential for catastrophe, transcend the actions of individual consumers. That is why the NCRA should get on with its job or get someone with competence to do it.