Jul 18, 2018: The conversation on the national crabbery, Gulf of Paria fishery, and the weaknesses along the local food value chain continue to expose our national food insecurity. We are continuously challenged by uncertainty and failing consumer confidence in a time of rising food prices, food imports, economic hardship for the more vulnerable among us, and unemployment. The public conflicting exchanges between crab catchers, oyster harvesters, fisherfolk and State agencies removes the confidence that consumers will have in any declaration of safe seafood for some time to come.
Through consultation with the Felicity Charlieville Fishing Association and the Claxton Bay Fishing Association, we agreed that we must all be mindful of food and nutrition security at a national level as well as the limited livelihood portfolio available to rural, coastal, and agricultural communities, especially the challenges they face. These relate to competition in the local food markets from imported equivalents, contraband trade, traditional stigma related to the price and quality of locally produced foods, and surviving the economics of agriculture; in addition to the collective responsibility to ensure that the national population has equitable access to safe, affordable and nutritious food.
From an official notice that The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local partners, was investigating a multi-state outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus illnesses that are linked to fresh, crab meat originating from Venezuela, it stated “Consumers are advised to ask where their crab meat is from, if dining out at a restaurant or in grocery stores. This product is commonly found in plastic tubs and may be labelled as “pre-cooked.”
However, local cuisine is primarily focused on the consumption of fresh, live crabs as compared to processed and packaged crab meat which the FDA report identified. Although consumers cannot differentiate and there is no immediate public education, there are reports that live crabs are brought from Venezuela as part of an on-going contraband trade to be sold on the local market. Our advocacy continues that people need to know where their food comes from and how it is produced or harvested.
Given the possibility that the processed product could be contaminated in processing and handling and not necessarily originating in the natural habitat of crabs, we therefore call for our own independent testing of products imported from Venezuela.
Reminiscent of the corned beef scare in recent months, the subsequent reaction from the Ministry of Agriculture and media reports, though welcomed as we already have nearly no food defence in the absence of a Chemistry Food and Drug Laboratory with the requisite accreditations and policy frameworks, propelled an alarmist reaction among consumers and undoubtedly the livelihoods of genuine crab catchers (oyster harvesters included). Similar damage is done given the on-going debate about the quality and safety of the Gulf of Paria fishery and flooding events, as recent as 2017, resulting in multiple deaths related to leptospirosis.
The Ministry, unfortunately, made no mention of the role of the Ministry of National Security which suggests to me that our institutions have not evolved to the reality that we need to build the required sensitivity and capacity to respond to issues facing real people as in this instance, food fraud, praedial larceny and piracy. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is an international issue but the specific contraband trade in crabs is a minor component of a wider issue on the high seas which we have failed to address for many years and are a result of our perceived porous maritime borders. It is yet another example that food security is a national security issue.
Another line of caution is the current thrust to market Tobago as a tourist destination in our attempts at diversification specifically its culinary culture. Administrators and policy-makers ought to be exceedingly cautious in their monitoring of “crab and dumpling” vendors given their specific and volatile target market. In 1998 T&T was banned from exporting seafood to the European Union because they wanted to ensure that the local regulatory environment protects, as far as possible, from food borne illnesses. While we do have fairly stringent requirements, there is no enforcement resulting in the absence of systems of quality control in our food system.
Possibly due to the failure of either trade partner to be ASYCUDA compliant in relation to statistical data reporting of trade transactions, UN COMTRADE has no reliable reports of the trade in Crustaceans (HS 0306) between Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela. However, Trinidad and Tobago imported nearly TT$ 200 million in crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns between 2014 and 2017 from its global trade partners. We export and re-export as well.
Interestingly, USA has not imported crabs (HS 030633) whether in shell or not, live, fresh or chilled from Venezuela in recent years according to the official statistics. It has, however, imported negligible quantities, less than US$ 100 thousand of frozen and smoked crabs (HS 030614) in recent years. The prepared or preserved (excluding smoked) crab trade, as the FDA report suggested, was worth almost US$ 34 million in 2017.
Geo-politics and a deeper understanding of the US sanctions against Venezuela in a world shocked daily by fake news and non-tariff barriers emphasizes the urgency for T&T to build its own capacity in many spheres especially where feeding ourselves and protecting that food supply into the future is concerned. We cannot always submit to imperialist advocacy but earn and demand international respect, while ensuring the safety of our people. Regional headlines announcing the T&T ban on crab meat and live crab imports from Venezuela in light of a USA report may prompt retaliation and withdrawal of an offer by the Venezuelan government in 2016 to purchase US$ 50 million in manufactured products from T&T.
Planning and advancing food and nutrition security is therefore a clear challenge for us. In the absence of an overarching policy framework for sustainable agriculture and rural development, key stakeholders continue to misdirect advocacy and resources jeopardizing the national good. These multi-dimensional issues need vision and leadership. In the short-run as income falls for fishing communities across the country, policymakers and administrators need to ensure that the social safety nets are responsive, that persons of differing socio-economic circumstances do not fall below the minimum living standard and that any such measure is not abused.