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Public health officials can not inspect every story

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, April 29, 2009) – The Ministry of Health is calling on members of the public to take extra care when they go shopping to check for expired and best before dates of products sold in shops.

Shirley Laban a Senior Environmental Health Officer from the Public Health Department made this call following complaints raised by some consumers over the sale of some expired goods found in many shelves around town, including major Supermarkets.

"I want to stress that consumers take extra care because there are limited resources from the health ministry to carryout shop inspections although we have laws that deal with such issues," she said.

Mrs. Laban said everyone must be responsible for their health and avoid purchasing expired goods and that they should not rely only on health authorities for inspections as the health ministry has limited capacity.

"Compliance is the main issue we are currently faced with because we do not have enough people to carry out inspections.

"Our main focus is to run training on food safety and handling so from now to July we will not run any compliance checks but only training," she said.

"The ministry has already issued a statement to all retail and wholesale owners stating: ‘It must be stressed here that goods with ‘Used By Date or Expiry Dates’ must be removed exactly on the date.

"The requirement of ‘Best before Date’ is to continue to be on sale for another 60 days (2 months) before it can be removed from the shelves."

She said there is currently no specific law relating to the importation of food products that have reached or passed their expiry dates apart from a broad provision in the Food Act that prohibits the manufacture, import, sale or distribution of any food unfit for human consumption.

"It is our priority this year to amend the Food Act to allow direct provisions for us to carry out certain control at the point of entry and that will help us avoid goods going out to the markets which is hard for us to inspect with the limited resources we have," she said.

In addition Environmental Health Officer at the Port Vila Municipality Malcom Dalesa said while the Council is trying to strengthen the enforcement of its by-laws, they feel that the existing provisions need to be revised.

"This regulation needs to be revised to cater for consumer demands for safe and quality food because it is also clashing with council efforts to improve public health protection," he said.

Another area, which needs strengthening under the Food Act, is the lack of provision to give responsible authorities the power to charge spot fines on shops selling expired items.

"The current Food Act does not give the power for health and provincial inspectors to impose instant fines, only the Municipal bylaws who can levy fines of Vt20, 000," she said.

The senior environmental health officer also made it clear that currently many export countries do not issue a certificate to export into our country as the required standard internationally because the country does not have that provision.

"Analytical capacity is another problem which means we can’t carry out tests and we mainly rely on certification of the exporting countries.

"When one country wants to export it must issue a certificate to export.

"This is because we do not have food import and export certification at the point of entry. This should be one of our priorities because unless we have such a provision it will be very difficult for us," she said.

Mr. Dalessa said currently municipal officers do weekly to monthly checks at all food outlets or shops especially where expiry dates are concerned and shops found with expired products are fined Vt20, 000 under the Council food hygiene by-laws.

Meanwhile Laban encouraged all consumers to lodge their complaints directly to the health ministry.

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