By Patrick Kagenda
Two months after the ministry of Health recommended a ban on production, sell, and consumption of alcohol packed in sachets allegedly because it had killed 18 people, the measure remains controversial in parliament, Cabinet, and the public. The Independent’s Patrick Kagenda talked to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) Manager for Quality Assurance Patrick Ssekitoleko.
Has the ban on the sachet alcoholic drinks been lifted?
The ban has not been lifted though it is in the process of being lifted. There are various measures that government is looking at. When these measures are addressed, the ban will be lifted.
What measures have you agreed upon with the alcohol manufacturers?
On a monthly basis, the packers of the alcohol will be submitting samples to the UNBS for quality evaluation.
Even when the spirit gets to the factory, before it is processed and blended some of it has to be sent to the UNBS and even prior to putting the finished product on the market, samples will have to be kept within the factory. This is aimed at having a traceability stage so as to identify where the problem has come from. We are also starting to control the manufacture and distribution of sachet packaging materials. Before anyone can sell their product they have to be registered at the UNBS. We may also go to the extent of confining the plates used in the printing of the branding. We are also drafting a comprehensive regulation which will govern the implementation of standards in the alcoholic beverages sector.
Parliament is refusing to lift the ban, what is the UNBS position on packers who say they want to finish off the PVC material they had imported?
Taking into consideration the investment the genuine manufacturers had put in place, we said okay, the government already has a policy to phase out PVC (plastic packaging material), why don’t we move in line with that policy and allow the sachet packers time to exhaust all the plastic packaging materials stock which will take up to April 2010 then shift to packing the alcohol in bottles. Most of them have already shifted to bottles; what they are now asking is, can they be allowed to finish off the remaining PVC packaging material so as to recover the money they invested in buying them?
What would necessitate the lifting of the ban?
We re-examined the entire alcohol sector to look at what measures can be put in place to ensure that as an institution and as a country, we can ensure that in future what recently happened can never happen again. We sat with the regulators who are the National Drug Authority, ministry of health, and the ministry of Trade. We identified a number of measures that included registration along with inspection of all the people involved in the packing of the products and ensuring that strong compliance measures are put in place.
How did the poisoning occur?
It was likely that somebody smuggled methanol an industrial chemical which is used in the manufacture of paint and entered it into the food chain.
How do you address such an issue?
We start controlling the importation of all the industrial chemicals so that we know who the importers are, where they are putting that chemical, what they are using it for, and who is buying it in case it is being sold on the open market and for what purpose. The issue became bigger than the methanol itself. We looked at the long term strategic safe chemical use in Uganda. The third measure which we looked at was how to ensure that we reach the grassroots people. We agreed that we shall have a register of manufacturers and a register of approved brands. The register using the Uganda Industry Alcohol Association (UIAA) will have to be disseminated up to the lowest level where you have the sub-county intelligence officers (GISO`s), police and the LCs.
How has the ban affected the alcohol sector?
Consultations we have had with the industry players revealed that over 100,000 people directly involved in the industry are affected, and over 700,000 indirectly involved in the industry are also affected. Revenue lost to government was Shs 20 billion on a monthly basis. When we put the ban into place it was a precautionary measure. Our investigations later revealed that all the brands that we had registered and which are produced legally in this country were safe. Those in which we found very high levels of methanol, we discovered were being produced behind houses and in corridors.
What are the likely challenges that are bound to affect your plans to implement the new measures you want in place?
Part of our challenge remains manpower. The other issue is the Enguli and the Liquors Act that need revamping. However because of the liberalisation of the economy and other challenges the government is facing, those laws are currently non-functional.
Do you have any binding agreement with the Uganda Industry Alcohol Association? (UIAA)
Yes. We have started drafting the memorandum of understanding to transfer these issues into the Memorandum of Understanding. Come March 2010, we are not going to allow the packing of alcohol less than 100mls. And after a years time we shall move to only having the 250mls packaging.
Next year we are seeing the implementation of the East African Common Market, how will the UNBS fit in with the many challenges around it?
At the national level we want to position Ugandan made products. We are putting in place a regulation that requires all manufactured goods to be registered with the UNBS, and we are soon launching a mark that will be on those products. We are also asking for a regional framework that should recognise national laws so as to create transparency.