Hard to track the rats! - State entities struggle to police illegal wholesales and supermarkets operating islandwide
Several wholesales and shops operating across the island could be doing so in breach of all the rules regarding food handling and storage because the state agency mandated to monitor them just doesn't know that they exist.
Operating in the public but without any registration or documentation also allows many wholesale operators to get away without paying the required taxes and fees.
The Food Storage and Prevention of Infestation Division (FSPID) of the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce last week admitted that it is facing an uphill battle monitoring the wholesales.
"It is quite challenging because some of them are not registered," said Eban Hutton, acting senior food storage scientist for the training and information unit at the FSPID.
"But under the National Food Safety Compliance Programme, when our inspectors go out into the field, they will go street by street and check as many places as they can. We also depend on the public to contact us if they see anywhere that is not up to par, and we will follow up on it," added Hutton.
The FSPID now has 21 inspectors - with three based in its western regional office located in Montego Bay - with responsibility for inspections in Westmoreland, St James, Trelawny, and Hanover. The others are based in Kingston and operate in and around the Corporate Area.
These inspectors operate under the Food Storage and Prevention of Infestation Act (1958) and Regulations (1973), checking for infestation levels for pests such as cockroaches, flies, ants, stored-product pests and rodents, and the conditions under which establishments store food.
For the April 2014 to March 2015 fiscal year, 13,055 such inspections were conducted, with 1,830 of these carried out at wholesales and supermarkets.
"The FSPID issues compliance certificates which are valid for one year. The certificates may be revoked if, however, the establishment is inspected and found to be non-compliant during that year," said Hutton.
"Consumers may ask to see these certificates as some establishments do not display them as it is not yet a legal requirement for them to do so."
Reports have reached the Sunday Gleaner of consumers buying food items from wholesales such as buns and taking them home only to find holes in the bag and roaches crawling out.
Persons have also expressed concern that when some wholesales open their doors in the morning, roaches and rats can be seen scurrying for a place to hide.
Hutton believes consumers have a vital role to play as not only should they not buy from places that they suspect are invested, but they should also bring it to the attention of the FSID.
"We would advise that they do not purchase food from these establishments," said Hutton, a view shared by Mayor of Kingston and head of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation Angela Brown Burke.
Not paying taxes
With a large number of wholesales operating across the Corporate Area, Brown Burke charges that many operators are not paying the required taxes and fees and Jamaicans should not spend their money in these establishments, which often offer goods at low prices.
"Some of the times, people just looking for where they get the best price, and sometimes when you have a significant difference in price, it is because something is awry. The other telltale sign are those who don't give any receipts and the price is extremely lower than the rest of the market," said Brown Burke.
"It is like a Catch 22. When you are looking for those prices and it doesn't matter to you that the other things are not in place, you have to understand the implications. The implications are that on the other hand, it is robbing the Government of revenue, and, therefore, curtailing our ability to provide certain services."
Brown Burke further pointed out that it is proving a challenge to get the wholesalers to comply with the tax requirements of the country as they simply close up shop when pressured to do so.
"By the time you go and you serve a notice on them, by another couple of weeks, they are gone, and there is another store in there and, supposedly, they know nothing about the previous owner," Brown Burke revealed.
"And for those who are like that, you find that not only are they not paying their trade licences, but they are probably not paying GCT or any of the other licences either."
According to Brown Burke, what needs to happen is that once someone is operating a business, all of their information should be made accessible to government entities to ensure that they are paying all the relevant fees and are compliant in all areas.