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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Unwise to cut corners


TONY BEST

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Unwise to cut corners

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THE “BOTTOM LINE” refers to more than a company’s net earnings per share.

When it comes safety in the food industry, be it milk, meat or fish, the bottom line is people’s health and ultimately their confidence in buying products in the supermarkets, meat stores and the vegetable stalls that dot Bridgetown and other parts of the country. In the end too, these factors have an impact on the profit and loss statements of farmers or food manufacturers.

That’s why a bit of advice was offered to the Barbados Government by Dr. Ronald Baynes, a toxicologist, veterinarian and professor of pharmacology at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh. It was: don’t allow fiscal austerity and the need to reduce public spending to shrink food safety standards.

It isn’t that the Freundel Stuart administration was doing that, but that the temptation to go in that direction is often too compelling to resist.

“The poultry industry, pork supply, mutton, beef and so on are currently on top of things. They maintain effective standards and the Government must ensure that those levels are maintained or even improved,” said Baynes, the director of the UNC-Chartered Center for Chemical Toxicology Research and Pharmacokinetics. “When it comes to these products, especially milk, you don’t mess with them. Barbadians, like Americans must have confidence in what they are eating.

“I believe right now Barbados is maintaining the standards and that conclusion was based on my experience in working with many of them,” said Baynes. “What I am hoping wouldn’t happen in Barbados is that the current economic troubles and the Government’s austerity measures don’t result in cuts to testing and surveillance of the quality of food that ends up on people’s tables. That would be counterproductive because it could undermine safety standards and ultimately people’s health.”

Just as important, cutbacks could affect the tourist industry, whether at hotels, restaurants or even cruise ship passengers who spend time in Barbados and eat meals on the island.

“A single case of a negative reaction to a meal in Barbados that could be traced to problems with food can undermine consumer confidence which is crucial to any industry,” he warned. “In situations where there are tight budgets, testing and government surveillance of food products can drop out. Should that occur it would be a major mistake.”

But Baynes, a graduate of the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus, Tuskegee University in Alabama, the University of Georgia in Athens and of North Carolina State University, was quick to add that cutbacks on testing become a fact of life then the Government should link arms with the scientists at Cave Hill, who work in excellent laboratories, to get the vital job done.

“There is room for collaboration between the UWI at Cave Hill and the Government. The partnership could be expanded,” asserted Baynes. “Cave Hill would have to be compensated financially, of course. Clearly, the Government, if forced to, can work with the scientists in the UWI chemistry and biology departments and use their expert services which one shouldn’t expect to be provided free. In this era and at this time there isn’t anything that’s free. But if the relationship can help the country maintain its high food standards and guarantee safety, then it would be worth the effort.

“If there is a shortfall in expertise or a deficit in equipment, the UWI can help fill the gap. It has cutting edge stuff at Cave Hill,” was the way he put it.

As the Barbadian sees it, the bottom line in this food safety equation is consumer confidence which is fashioned by a mix of solid scientific evidence and public perception. In other words, if the food is known to be safe then consumers would buy more and farmers and producers would be smiling to the bank.

Baynes, a former student of the Coleridge & Parry School in Ashton Hall, St. Peter and of the Barbados Community College has earned doctorates in veterinary medicine and pharmacology is considered an expert in drug and pesticide residue in animals.

He struck a note of caution that shouldn’t be ignored: the Government doesn’t have exclusive responsibility for high food standards. It’s something in which the private sector has a hand. And the example he cited was the Pine Hill Dairy which he described as a “fine” example of the role of private businesses.

“I know from my relationship with the Pine Hill Dairy that it takes safety very seriously. Dairy farmers also take the matter seriously because they are aware of the dangers of contaminated milk,” he said. “It is an industry that guards itself and isn’t reluctant to throw away any milk which tests show has even the slightest indication of contamination. The Pine Hill Dairy has excellent procedures.”

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