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Buyer, beware: Half of coconut water bottlers unregistered

Published:Wednesday | June 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Coconut tree laden with coconuts. - File

Marcella Scarlett, Business Reporter

The Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) has revealed that, in a market of 22 operators, only about half of the bottlers of coconut water are registered by the agency.

The others reportedly ignore the requirement for the BSJ to register and monitor all food-processing establishments involved in processing and pre-packaging food for sale locally or internationally.

The BSJ list names 11 registered entities, another 11 that are unregistered - one of whom says he is now going through the application process - and three that have ceased to operate as at April 25, 2012 (see graphic).

The Coconut Industry Board, the entity that regulates the market, itself complains that bottlers operate "freely" and tend to "do as they please".

The agency says it does some monitoring of the sector, which is confined to "known" operators. However, its list of licensed entities covers 15 operators or four more than BSJ's.

Registration and testing by BSJ is not only meant to police quality, but also to provide consumers with assurance that the products on the market are safe to consume.

"The BSJ cannot attest to the wholesomeness of a product manufactured in an unregistered establishment and, as such, the consuming public must be guided by this information when making a purchase," said the agency in response to Wednesday Business queries.

Yvonne Burns, general manager of the Coconut Industry Board, said the industry is difficult to monitor.

"There is no registration fee or licence fee to either bottle coconut water or become a coconut farmer," she said.

"They are supposed to register with us but they don't. It is an open market; the players do as they please. When we ask for information we don't get any."

At least one of the 11 unregistered operators is trying to regularise its operations.

Awaiting certificate

Mark Wiggan of Circle B Farm - the only one of the 11 unregistered entities that Wednesday Business could reach - said Tuesday that he has put in his application to the BSJ and is awaiting his certificate of registration. That was confirmed by a BSJ representative, who said that the certificate is to be delivered this week.

Wiggan said he is also applying for a Coconut Board licence but finds the process tedious because of the heavy paper work involved.

"I have the papers here to fill out, but it is a lot of paper work. The reporting is time-consuming and tedious. It is a lot of paper to fill out. I would suggest that they allow us to do it electronically," he said.

Bottlers are supposed to register with the Ministry of Health, but Wednesday Business was unable to ascertain whether they comply. The responsible officer did not respond to requests for comment.

However, Wiggan said Circle B will also be registering with the Ministry of Health.

"There is really no problem with that one because if you meet the Bureau of Standards criteria, then you meet the ministry criteria. Both of them go hand in hand and I am going to register with them soon," he said.

The Coconut Industry Board has issued fewer licences to companies that bottle and distribute coconut water than the number of players known to the BSJ.

"We give a licence to all coconut water players. It is a means of record keeping. Right now, we have issued licences to 15 persons. There are no fees; it is just for statistical purposes. We just want to use it to find out how many players we are dealing with, find out how many coconuts they do per week, how many gallons, and so on," Burns said.

She concludes that some players are not willing to register because of fear of being taxed.

The coconut board is now working on programmes to deal with the issue of compliance, she said, starting with a circular that is being drafted for distribution to all operators in the industry.

"Right now, we are trying to do a circular to all the players advising them of best practices. People are afraid to send in their information because of fear that when they report they might be taxed," Burns said.

For now, the known players are checked on regularly by the coconut board and if breaches are found then penalties applies, even if the entity is not registered.

In extreme cases, the operation is locked down.

"If they find a breach, they close them down, but if no breach they just continue their operations until checked on again in the future … . Technically there is nothing to hold them accountable for non-reporting," Burns said.

"We would need to go back to the regulations, go back to the books, and find out what the penalties are, be they imprisonment or fines and so on."