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Deeper monitoring coming for food establishments

The Ministry of Health and Wellness will be deploying technology to better track the eleven or so categories of food organisations that are regulated by its internal Environmental Health Division.

The estimated cost of procuring the environmental health management information system was not disclosed.

The ministry’s Acting Director of Environmental Health, Michael Williams, says preliminary work undertaken in-house has already begun with the digitisation of assessment tools, moving from paper to electronic records.

“The first phase was done using internal expertise,” said Williams, and a tender is pending for the second.

“We also did training. That has been completed. The next phase is to go through a procurement process for consultants and equipment,” he said.

Food facilities are monitored to prevent conditions that can lead to the outbreak of disease and other health challenges that might affect consumers.

Williams says the entities policed for compliance include wholesale establishments; canteens and cookshops; meat and poultry shops; food processing and manufacturing plants; canning, bottling, and ice-making facilities; meat and poultry processing plants; dairy and milk processing plants; and fish processing plants; traders of ice cream and frozen novelties; pastry shops, snack stores, bakeries, itinerant vendors, food vending in public and private facilities; cold storage and food warehouses; food vending and coin operated machines; the cottage industry; franchises; and abattoirs.

No current data is available on the full size of Jamaica’s food sector, which has thousands of operators. As for the food-services component, the available information is six years old.

Data from the US Department of Agriculture indicates that the consumer food service market in Jamaica generated sales of about US$700 million in 2017.

Independent food-service establishments constituted about 60 per cent of those sales while chain establishments contributed the other 40 per cent.

Jamaica’s statistical agency, Statin, captures data on food under two main headings – ‘food, beverage and tobacco’ and ‘hotels and restaurants’ – which accounted for $137 billion and $102 billion of economic output, respectively, in calendar year 2022.

Under the current monitoring system for food handlers, the Ministry of Health and Wellness relies on alerts from parish-based health departments regarding situations that warrant action as well as complaints from customers, reported food-borne illnesses through the ministry’s surveillance system, and routine inspections of facilities.

These may trigger interventions such as reinspection, warnings, closure or prosecution.

The number of breaches annually was not immediately available.

“We would have to collect that from the parish councils,” Williams said.

“There are several challenges regarding monitoring of food establishments which include but are not limited to food establishments that operate illegally. These entities are unlicensed and operate mostly from private homes or other secluded localities ‘under the radar’,” he said.

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