The new value-added tax (VAT) regime comes into effect tomorrow February 1, and the president of the Supermarkets Association (SATT), Yunus Ibrahim, is urging consumers to be alert and ensure they are getting value for money.
While many previously zero-rated items would now have the 12.5 per cent VAT, Ibrahim said consumers should "take a look at the bigger picture, electricity and telephone bills will come down by 2.5 per cent, and the fact is VAT is dropping."
Ibrahim said, very often, supermarkets are the ones that take a beating but he is urging consumers "to be their own watchdogs. Look for proper labelling with expiry dates and if the label does not have the information, don't buy it."
Ibrahim told the GML Enterprise Desk that over the years, bona fide supermarket owners in T&T have been seeking to improve the quality of food products accessible to consumers. He said, in some instances, suppliers may bring foods that are labelled but have no expiry date.
"Sometimes it could be a genuine mistake, sometimes it slips through the cracks. The supermarket owner has a duty to ensure the supplier takes back those goods and puts proper labels with expiry dates before they hit the supermarket shelves," said Ibrahim.
The first point where goods coming into the country are checked are the nation's ports. If there is a concern with a product, and it's found not to meet the standards, the items can be blocked.
The local regulatory and standards monitoring agency for the importation of food or drugs is the chemistry and food and drug division (CFDD) of the Ministry of Health. According to the division's Web site, the mandate of the CFDD is to monitor all aspects of the importation, manufacture, storage, distribution, sale, fraud and deception in labelling and marketing and disposal of food and drugs. Inspection must be sought prior to the importation, manufacture or sale of the particular food or drug. If an item that does not meet local standards is imported, the CFDD has the authority to block its entry, or it can determine whether the item can be relabelled.
The CFDD is authorised to conduct regular food inspections at supermarkets to ensure there is compliance with the Food and Drugs Act. This includes proper labelling of foods with expiry dates and goods that have expired are not offered for sale.
But, the agency has reported that it has found instances where there has been non-compliance. When this happens, the goods are seized and the supermarket owner is directed to take corrective action.
Ibrahim said, in these instances, the ministry can contact the Supermarkets Association and "we can do something." He said the industry–virtually self-regulated–has over the years sought to put consumers first and ensure only goods that are approved and meet all health and safety standards as well as proper labelling and expiry dates make it to the shelves.
But it's not just the CFDD that has the responsibility to ensure that consumers are not short changed. The responsibility also rests with the Bureau of Standards and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Local supermarkets are now in competition with a plethora of Chinese supermarkets that have been set up strategically across the country.
On a visit to some of them, it was observed that many of the goods on the shelves had Chinese labels and, in some cases, no expiry dates. Ibrahim said it could be that someone was falling short in doing what they have to do or simply turning a blind eye. Efforts to contact officials at the CFDD were unsuccessful.
Trade Minister Paula Gopie Scoon told the GML Enterprise Desk that labels that are in a foreign language and which consumers cannot read are a "valid concern" and she intends to take up the matter on how those goods make it to supermarket shelves.
The Minister said all food products must be clearly labelled in English for the benefit of consumers and must have expiry dates.
"A lot of the issues are overlapping as there is food and drugs (CFDD), consumer affairs unit, customs. There are rules. It is a clear issue of enforcement which will be addressed."
Ibrahim said his association "wants the authority to regulate supermarkets." He said they had been in discussions with the previous administration and he intends to pursue it with the current government for "legislation governing the operations of supermarkets in T&T."
Such a law, he said, "would allow for self-regulation to protect the consumer by being the final rubber stamp for approval to open a new supermarket."
The person who opens a supermarket, he added, "would be held to established standards and ensure that they meet the criteria of the Ministry of Health Inspectorate, the Bureau of Standards and the consumer affairs division."
"There must be a level-playing field and, no matter who comes in–be it the Russians or whoever–consumers must be protected."
The thinking, he said, is that the supermarkets would carry "a logo indicating to consumers that this is a bona fide supermarket that has met the criteria for business."
The legislation, which he said is still being discussed, would also include classes of supermarkets and would ensure that supermarkets under SATT's purview "meet occupational health and safety standards." This includes "size of lanes, not just for shelf stock, but for handling and processing."
He said the stores and retail outlet legislation for food is very old and needs to be revisited.
As it stands now, he said, "inspectors interpret the law but there must be such a standard that it is well grounded and not open to interpretation by anyone."
Local supermarket owners, he said, have over the years been very competitive and "this has been to the benefit of consumers. The nation does not suffer from any outbreak. We touch hundreds of thousands of lives daily and there are no outbreaks because we operate with an unwritten law that targets the consumer and gives them the best service and products."
He is hoping their efforts to get legislation to regulate the industry would get the blessing of the Government because it is in the interest of the consumer.