Ensuring food safety for all

August 6, 2020

If there was one positive outcome from the measures that we have taken to ensure the safety of each individual during this COVID 19 pandemic, it is the reinforcement of the practice of proper hygiene in all aspects of our lives.

The Food Industry in Fiji, like in many other countries, has always been expected to employ principles and practices that ensures the health and safety of consumers. While legislative frameworks exist to ensure this, there are traders that continue to defy regulations and infringe upon the rights of consumers.

 Food Safety Laws in Fiji

When the Food and Safety Act 2003 was passed by Parliament, the Consumer Council of Fiji considered it a step in the right direction. This meant that there was a standard and a criterion in place specifically for food that traders needed to abide by. It also had provisions where dodgy traders could be held accountable for their actions.

 In 2009, the government passed the Food Safety Regulations that complimented the Act and encompassed a wider scope of provisions to match the ever-evolving food safety issues consumers encountered. But this alone was not enough taking into account the hygiene standards of spaces and conditions food was prepared in had dropped drastically. More fast food businesses were opening but the health of consumers was in jeopardy as the environment in which they prepared food was not hygienic.

 Granted there were businesses that were particular about hygiene, other traders however, who thought more about the promise of money and valued less the quality of service and products became a challenge.  This is why the Council continued to make submissions for the implementation of a restaurant grading system that would help point consumers in the right direction when searching for a place to eat. The Food Handling Regulations 1998 under the Public Health Act was simply not enough.

 After continuous lobbying, the Restaurant Grading System became effective in 2012. The system allows restaurants to be awarded either ‘A’ certificate which indicated 90 per cent compliance to requirements, a ‘B’ grade indicating 80 per cent compliance and a C and D grade indicate 70 per cent compliance or less. Restaurants who grade 70 percent or less will be notified of areas in need of improvement which needs to take place within 7 days. Failure to do so may result in legal action being taken against the trader or closure.

 Food Safety in Agriculture

Understanding that chemical-based pesticides have been used extensively in crop production since the 18th and 19th centuries, the Council embarked on an awareness campaign to help ensure the safety of consumers and the use of best agricultural practices by farmers. Fruits and vegetables are crucial to a healthy diet and therefore need to be produced in a manner deemed safe for consumers.

 Fiji’s laws on use of pesticides in Fiji include the Pesticides Act 1971 which regulates the registration and sale of pesticides. Unless a pesticide is registered, it may not be used, offered for sale or sold in Fiji. Breaching the Act is a statutory offence with penalties comprising cancellation of registration, a lump sum fine and, for a continuing offence, a further daily fine. This Act is administered by the Ministry of Agriculture.

 The Food and Safety Act 2003 also promotes public health and safety with regard to food and regulates the preparation, sale and use of food to ensure consumers make informed decisions. It sets the standards on Maximum Residual Limits (MRLs) for both food products and animal feed sold and produced locally. MRLs is the maximum amount if residue that can remain on food products when pesticide is used without causing harm to humans. The trades of pesticides found in fruits and vegetables is called residue.

 MRLs for pesticides are established in most countries to safeguard consumer health and promote good agricultural practices in the use of pesticides. When exporting food, farmers must also consider the MRLs set by the country of import which is why all care must be taken to ensure pesticides are applied correctly.

 Food Safety Challenges in Fiji

Much of consumer complaints received by the Council deals primarily with food. In the 2018-2019 financial year, food and drinks ranked second in the number of complaints received by the Council. There were 287 complaints, which was 8.2 per cent of the total number of complaints received. Much of the issues raised were systematic and may be against the same or different traders.

 The Council more recently exposed certain retail outlets, manufacturers, restaurants and bakeries selling expired products, damaged products, foreign labelling on food items, foreign objects found in food and unhygienic food handling practices. The sale of putrid meat was also rife in the markets causing alarm among many consumers. At a time where consumers are working hard to stretch finances and make ends meet it was deemed unreasonable for traders to show such lack of regard for consumer health. The Council continues to closely monitor such traders by conducting intensive market surveillances and refers offenders to the Ministry of Health’s Food Unit for enforcement action.

 Food Safety is a shared responsibility

Consumers, traders and government bodies all play a vital role in ensuring that food safety practices are employed and that regulations are adhered to. Enforcement plays an important role in helping prevent food safety issues in our markets. The Consumer Council of Fiji works with enforcement agencies such as Food Units, Public Health Departments and the Fijian Competition and Consumer Commission to ensure that traders who breach consumer rights and safety are taken to task. The Council also understands the consumers also have the responsibility to make sure that their sources of food, whether from supermarkets or produce from the farm follow the correct regulations and standards. It is always advisable to check expiry dates, the restaurant grading for eateries, the condition of food and processing units to ensure you are making the right choice. Those finding anomalies are urged to contact the Council on toll free number 155 or email complaints@consumersfiji.org