The health ministry says it has no major concerns with the operations of the water shops which are now proliferating on the local market but is advising consumers to exercise their right to inquire about the source and content of the products they opt to buy from the entities.
“We consider water [as] food and, hence, all these water shops are required to be licensed. Right across the country we do inspect and licence these operations. For the most part they are operating at the level that is required. We have a few concerns here and there, [but] they are not grave to us — not anything that warrants any serious intervention. We work with the client to come up to the standard if they’re not meeting the required standard. So they are fairly OK,” Director of Environmental Health Everton Baker told the Jamaica Observer on Friday.
There are 142 privately owned water shops that are monitored by the ministry, which requires them to be licensed annually. Seven others are operated by the municipal corporations. The majority of the shops (42) are in Kingston and St Andrew, followed closely by St Catherine with 35 shops.
Water vending machines operated by several retail outlets, such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and recreational facilities, are also monitored by the Ministry of Health but are not included under the category of water shops. The majority of water shops are in full compliance and are licensed, the ministry advised, while the others are at various stages of compliance awaiting full approval.
Baker noted that, while the ministry has operational responsibility for water shops or wherever water is dispensed, the equipment for measuring and dispensing is dealt with by the Bureau of Standards Jamaica, while the health ministry focuses on the quality of the product.
He stressed that consumers must be vigilant and exercise their right to ask about water source: “Some of the shops may provide the water, but you don’t have any labels per se. But you have a right to enquire about the source of the water and how it is treated,” noting that the majority of the water on the market is purified tap water.
The director said the ministry’s focus is certification and monitoring, adding: “What we can guarantee is that these entities provide potable water for the client based on all we have checked. The customer would have to determine if they’re getting spring water or purified water,” he remarked, noting that the ministry does have the capacity to conduct periodic testing, but routine testing is focused on the biological quality or treatment methods.
“We do other tests if we have reasons to do it, or we have suspicions, or investigations lead us to do other tests,” he explained.
Water shops are licensed as food handling establishments under the 2000 Public Health Food Handling regulations and qualify for a licence once the owner has fulfilled certain requirements. Owners and employees must hold valid food handlers permits, while the buildings, equipment, and fixtures must meet sanitation standards, and the water produced should be potable and free from physical, chemical, and biological contaminants.
The ministry also uses its draft National Water Safety Management Programme guidelines for assessments, monitoring, and evaluation of these producers and distributors of water.
Verification procedures to ensure maintenance of operating standards are also done, the ministry said. Additionally, there are compliance standards which apply prior to and after licensing. These standards include routine maintenance of all fixtures and equipment, such as routine replacement of filters and bacteriological testing of products to ensure water safety, the ministry said.