By Gregory Gondwe.
Malawi has a wooly food regulatory framework that makes establishment of enforcement mechanisms a tall order. The framework is disjointed, with bits and pieces of the law on food control vested in the ministries of Health, and Agriculture as well as the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) and local government assemblies.
Acting Director General for MBS Charles Malata Chirwa says they are battling to have a comprehensive and an encompassing law that is going to empower one institution, like Food Regulatory Authority, to regulate and enforce food safety measures.
Established in December 1972 by an Act of Parliament with a mandate to promote standardization of commodities and of the manufacturer, production, processing or treatment thereof, MBS says although local products are submitted for food checks not all the process is not done on all the food found on the market.
Some restrictions and enforcement of the law on food are under the penal code and it is the Malawi Police Service, which enforces it. The said ministries also enforce some food regulations as empowered by the law.
For instance, Agriculture ministry can impose ban on beef if it discovers an outbreak of cow disease in the particular area it is produced, while the Health ministry can restrict any kind of food within an area, which it believes has caused an outbreak of a particular disease.
For different reasons, Local assemblies also enact byelaws that project a food regulatory framework and most of these byelaws for example can be those that outlaw the selling of green maize during farming period to control theft, which becomes rampant during this period and affect the country’s food security as a result of poor harvest.
MBS has, however, a big chunk of percentage as it regulates over 80% of local and imported foodstuffs, which include chicken and pork as well as drinks and beverages, but it observes that there are huge problems faced to put the process into effect.
“Locally the challenge is to know who is doing what and where,” said Chirwa, “ With the trade liberalization we are always caught up in a cat and mouse chase trying to corner producers who put their mediocre and uncertified products on the market.”
He says unlike in the past where products would only come on the market after the Bureau’s consent, today government’s adoption of a wholesale liberalization policy killed the link. Consequently, untraceable products and sometimes with deliberate misleading labels continue to litter the markets, albeit its mysterious producer whom the Bureau can not even trace.
MBS says the liberalization problem extend to imported food stuffs as well, since a lot of imports coming in the country are choking the entire system that many local companies are failing to compete.
“Problem of counterfeit is also rampant with the imported food products. We have difficulties to identify a right product from a fake one because genuine manufacturers have not registered,” says Malata.
Although problematic that the process is, MBS still conduct tests. Chirwa says they collect samples of any food imports at the border as they come in or at the next entry point. He says they deny entry of any food import into the country upon the discovery that it has some failing.
MBS, which is correspondent member and Africa’s Regional Liaison Office – which excludes Arab Countries- for the International Standardization Organization (ISO) has a quality policy that aims at spearheading the promotion of effective and efficient standardization and quality. It is also the contact and enquiry point for the codex alimentation.
The Bureau established a National Standardization Programme in 1972 and since then over 400 standards have been published for various products and services and these includes codes of practice in different areas for instance, MBS 18 for carbonated soft drinks.
The bureau has 38 technical committees that represent all national interests, 3 divisional committees responsible for food and agriculture; The Standards Policy Advisory Committee and The Malawi Standards Board all set up to improve and prop up standards development and information through six operating schemes.
One of the main objects in the MBS Act was to deal with issuance and control of standardization marks also known as the ‘Certification Marks’ but through a specifically designated regulation by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry it was extended to food processes such as hotel catering and became known as Permit and Designation Scheme (P&DCS).
The P&DCS operation is that a manufacturer wishing to use the ‘Quality Mark’ on his products applies to the Bureau, whose appointed inspectors conduct an initial assessment of the factory and the product(s), in conformity with international practices for compliance to the relevant Malawi standards.
The assessment report is then submitted to the Standards Policy Advisory Committee (SPAC) for approval on behalf of the bureau. If approved, the manufacturer is issued with a permit certificate that allows the use of the Quality Mark on the product(s).
In a similar manner, foods processing units or factories apply for Designation Certificates that can be displayed prominently at their places to manifest their compliance to national standards.
MBS observes that other traders have, however, taken advantage of the local market’s sensitivity to prices and under the guise of liberalization, they trash the market with food products that are non-complaint to standardization requirements.
“The low awareness on consumer rights by most of the people makes it very hard for us to penetrate some of these unscrupulous dealers trying to make a kill out of this pathetic situation by bringing low quality products,” says Bureau boss Chirwa.
According to the bureau despite the gluttony displayed by the said dealers, the scheme has, since 1979 gained wide acceptance by both the public and the users themselves as evidenced by the rising number of issued certificates, from only 4 issued to one company in 1979 to 220 certificates issued to 300 companies by 1998.
To make sure that quality and standards set on consumables is followed by the word, the Bureau was responsible and instrumental in the establishment of The Consumer Association of Malawi (CAMA), which acts like a consumers’ watchdog.
The bureau extends its tentacles to imported products into Malawi in order to protect the consumer and the economy and in turn provide a level playing field for similar products made in Malawi, which it observed, has been stymied by liberalization.
To achieve this, in 1993 the Bureau initiated the putting in place of an Import Quality Monitoring Scheme (IQMS) modified to operate in collaboration with the then Department of Customs and Excise (DCE), now commissioned as the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA).
Importers of products, thus food inclusive, designated on a scheduled published in an order issued by the Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry are required to register with the bureau on the scheme.
The designated list is based on published Malawi standards that are in turn gazetted. Consignments of products for registered importers are then quickly checked at the customs point before they are cleared for compliance to the specifications of the relevant standard.
A letter is then issued to the DCE indicating compliance or non-compliance of the consignment for clearance purposes where tests and examination on the imported products are conducted both on site or bonded warehouse and in MBS Central Laboratories.
For consignments that do not satisfy the Malawi Standards the DCE requests the importer to remove the goods from Malawi and re-export them or return them to supplier. The bureau then, through its regional liaison programmes, notifies its cooperating national standard bodies in the SADC and COMESA countries of such non-complying goods.
“We link up quite often with our foreign colleagues so that we are not dealing with something that was done by our friends, say in neighboring Mozambique and occasionally we may not have a test facility and we can ask our outside friends for it,” explains Chirwa.
The Bureau says in its imitative to promote standard, it has also done a lot on quality assurance services, from one certified company and four certificates issued soon after its inception, it now boasts 106 product quality certificates holders and 66 process quality certificate holders covering over 300 different products and processes country wide.
From one quality inspector it now boasts twenty inspectors and in addition, the Bureau has 3 qualified Auditors that meet the requirements of the Institute of Quality Assurance (IQA) two of whom have been registered by the UK based international register of Certified Auditors for auditing to MBS-ISO 9000 Quality Management Standards.
MBS says it has a voice at International and continental or regional rank on codex alimentation where at a codex level a request would come to standardize the quality of food products and it would be part of the deliberating process.
“Usually such a request goes to a forum and stakeholders make their interventions and inputs based on their nation’s situation, like technical requirement and its capability to meet certain food requirements, it is an exhaustive process which goes through several standards before passing as a codex standard,” explained Chirwa.
He added that the process give countries enough time to adjust and improve to situation in order to satisfy the codex requirements.
Malawi use these same standards for food contaminants and intoxicants although in some cases the country has to observe local standard on one hand and international standard on the other, Chirwa says in any case contaminants are not tolerated.
Says Chirwa: “On toxicants some are natural toxins, which depending on its effect we can not control much but for manufactured toxins this out of our hands as some could be treated as drugs which must be looked into by other authorities for appropriate actions.”
MBS has the entire mandate to oversee the upholding of the regulatory and enforcement mechanisms on food labeling. According to the bureau, all the standards on food require food labels where six basic requirements are considered.
Chirwa says, “The principle is that the label should be authentic and not one that mislead the consumer. The other requirements are that the name of the product and the manufacturer must be indicated. The product’s batch number, the list of ingredients and expiry date are other must shown when food labelling.
To approve the food label MBS gets some samples and conduct some cultures and prove that what is indicated is really what it is.
Other organizations the Bureau has initiated its formation are The Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre (MIRTDC), The Quality Association of Malawi (QUAM) and The National Codex Commite (NCC).
Among other things NCC regulates Street vended foods to make sure that it complies with the standard set by the committee, which has its secretariat at MBS headquarters so that it is free of health hazards.
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