FDA Delays Inspections Amid Political Food Fight

11 November 2011


US Embassy in Kingston weighs in to deny that food exports have been banned temporarily

The timing of a decision by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to postpone previously agreed inspections of several Jamaican food-processing companies has refuelled a political quarrel over the readiness of Jamaica’s food processors to meet American standards.

Industry and Commerce Minister Dr Christopher Tufton pushed back midweek on a statement by political opponents, the People’s National Party, claiming that companies had been banned from exporting under the new US Food Safety and Modernisation Act (FSMA).

And, the US Embassy in Kingston weighed in Thursday to deny that food exports have been banned temporarily as alleged by opposition spokesman Anthony Hylton.

The new food safety law does not take effect until January 1, 2012. Meantime, the FDA is providing Jamaica with technical assistance to ready the food sector for exporting under the new rules.

On Wednesday, FDA programme specialist Tanesha Mhali wrote to Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) saying some inspections would be delayed, according to email correspondence seen by the Financial Gleaner. She gave no reason, and calls to her office for clarification were unanswered.

“Due to unforeseen circumstances, the remainder of the scheduled FDA inspection will be cancelled. The firms will be contacted again with new dates next year,” Mhali wrote Wednesday night.

The US embassy statement a day later made it clear that the agency was wary of being caught up in domestic politics.

“Citing concerns about the mischaracterisation of the FDA inspector’s visit, the agency decided to suspend the assessment having completed only one of four scheduled inspections of Jamaican food processors,” the embassy said.

“The FDA will determine if and when the remaining three companies will be rescheduled for inspection.”

Tufton, too, told the Financial Gleaner ahead of the embassy statement, that the cancelled inspections were likely the result of domestic politicking.

But even amid the blowback, Hylton said late Thursday that he was not yet minded to withdraw his comments.

“He (Tufton) sought to give clarity to his previous pronouncements that the FDA will visit next year. However, he has limited his comments to the agro-processing sub-sector,” Hylton told the¬†Financial Gleaner. “My concerns run to the entire supply chain, including small food producers who supply agro-processors and traders. Far more needs to be done, at least to educate these actors,” he said.

Beverley Miller, the Food Safety Modernisation coordinator for the National Task Force secretariat operating out of the BSJ, told theFinancial Gleaner that the FDA inspections occur under specific conditions and with heavy local oversight.

Firm’s decision

The firm to be inspected has to agree to the audit; the FDA is provided with the names of the officers; and having received clearance from the firms, Jamaican officials from the Fresh Produce Exporters Association, Marketing Development Limited, the Ministry of Agcriculture’s Storage and Prevention of Infestation Division, and the Bureau of Standards, are allowed to observe the inspections.

An expected 50 Jamaican companies of an estimated 200 food exporters are to undergo audits under the ministry-coordinated project.

On Tuesday, Hylton demanded answers from Tufton, saying the food-export sector was in more trouble than the minister let on, and that some firms had been given ‘pink slips’ under the FSMA.

Tufton said in a release a day later that there was no negative fallout including a possible ban on exports for facilities already inspected by the FDA.

There is “currently no ban, temporarily or otherwise, of exports to the United States from any food-processing companies in Jamaica arising from any inspection carried out by the FDA,” the minister said.

Tufton said the current visit of an inspector from the FDA relates to the inspection of four fresh produce facilities, and not processed-food plants.

“Only one fresh-produce exporting company was inspected. Theinspector identified some areas for improvement to be addressed within three weeks. The company has indicated that they are not aware of any ban preventing them from exporting to the US market and expressed confidence that they will meet the requirements within the specified time,” he commented.

Tufton said that the inspection of fresh-food facilities were being carried out under existing regulations, since the Food Safety Modernisation Act have not been fully developed, a statement later backed up by BSJ head Noel Osbourne.

The minister said he was advised that the inspections of processed-food facilities by the FDA will commence in January 2012.

Food export is a J$10-billion industry for Jamaica.

Earlier this week, president of the Jamaica Exporters’ Association, Vitus Evans, told the¬†Financial Gleaner that the association had got no information of a temporary ban on any industry player.

Based on previous discussions, he said, the FDA is to visit 50 of about 80 food-processing and packaging facilities in the island, and that a report of the audit is to be provided to Jamaica, along with recommendations for corrective action.

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