Last Thursday, the acting mayor of Montego Bay, Councilor Richard Vernon, pressed the St. James parish’s local health officials to outline a plan to combat the lack of food handler permits by the majority of vendors on the streets of Montego Bay, Jamaica. There is a risk to the public from food-borne illness due to a lack of compliance with health standards when many vendors operate without proper permits.
The acting Chief Public Health Inspector, Sherika Lewis, disclosed that out of 600 food vendors in the parish, only 30 have food handler’s permits. To obtain a permit, vendors must turn in a properly completed application form, two passport-sized photographs signed by a notary public official, and an application fee of J$500.00 (about $3.23 US). After this, they will be required to attend a food handler’s training session, where they will receive their permit after successfully completing a food safety test.
During Thursday’s meeting, Vernon asked Lewis what percentage of the vendor population was in compliance with the health standards.
“From February’s report, I think it is less than five percent of those persons. There are over 600 itinerant vendors, and we are able to take action mainly with the ones who are at the schools, but the ones who are on the streets are here today and gone tomorrow,” Lewis responded. In November 2021, Montego Bay Mayor Leeroy Williams found that migrant vendors were responsible for much of the congestion experienced in the streets.
Lewis pointed out that food vending is part of the culture. Simply breaking up non-compliant vendors would be difficult. One solution proposed was to have vendors limit their trade to designated areas expressly set aside for them. This would make it easier for officials to keep track of the vendor’s hygiene and food safety practices. In the past, food drives have been done for vendors, as well as handwashing programs at local schools where makeshift handwashing stations were provided to the vendors during a handwashing program.
There have been many attempts to get vendors compliant with health regulations in years past. One attempt included pushing vendors to sell in areas specifically set aside for them in sections of Montego Bay, like the Charles Gordon Market. Another action taken in 2017 included a push by the St. James Health Department to engage vendors in hygiene and cleanliness training. This was in part to counter the continual rat infestation problem in Montego Bay.
Although it is a problem that vendors are operating without proper permits, the permits themselves were not Vernon’s top concern. Vernon made it clear that the St. James Municipal Corporation was not asking the health authorities to dismantle the non-compliant vendor’s operations. His top priority is to ensure that patrons of the street food vendors being served will not be sacrificing their health and safety.
Vernon pointed out that there have been complaints from patrons of various street food vendors about illness based on purchasing foods from certain locations. He urged that this is a very serious issue, and it is something that needs to be dealt with immediately.
“We have been looking at the vending zones, but food vending is a whole different game. We are not… for dismantling any of that operation. We are more for fostering growth in these small businesses,” the acting mayor said. “We want to enhance what they do. It is not a situation where we want to dismantle or discourage them.
Those who feel adventurous and can discern the good food from the bad on a tropical Jamaican getaway will be pleased to know that Jamaica recently removed all entry requirements for tourists. When it comes to food-borne illnesses in Jamaica, the International Association For Medical Assistance To Travelers (IAMAT) says it’s not just about what you eat but also where you eat. Travelers are advised to avoid restaurants and vendors that appear unclean or don’t have many customers. Hand washing before handling food is also recommended.
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