A Cayman Islands business has been licensed to export lionfish and iguana meat for sale in the U.S.
But the company, Spinion, says its efforts to provide an economic solution to the two invasive species threatening Cayman’s environment are being hampered by an opaque and seemingly endless local regulatory process.
Mike Foreman, who co-owns Spinion, said the company had met the approval process to export both species for sale in the U.S., but had been struggling for over a year to get approval from the Department of Environmental Health in the Cayman Islands.
He said the territory has no documented approval process for a food processing business.
Efforts to get endorsement from the Department of Environmental Health for a trade and business license to process both fish and iguana at the same plant have been frustrated by what he sees as an ad hoc list of ever-increasing licensing demands. The company has involved lawyers in an effort to get the impasse resolved and raised concerns that it is being treated differently to other food processing businesses, including the Cayman Turtle Farm.
“All I’m asking for is for them to deal with it and have a procedure that is fair. Give us the rules of the game and apply them to everybody,” he said.
The application for a Trade and Business License was filed in July 2016. The business, initially established to cull and sell lionfish locally with the goal of expanding to export to the U.S., was seeking permission to also process iguana for local sales and export.
Mr. Foreman said the long-term plan is to export the prime cuts for sale in the U.S., where he believes there is a growing customer base for the meat. The rest of the iguana would be processed for animal feed. The company, which already sells lionfish locally, also wants to export lionfish fillets for the U.S. market, processed at the same George Town plant.
“We want to be in the local market to raise awareness and to allow us to employ Caymanian cullers and processors while we ramp up the operation in the U.S., but our primary business will be export,” he said. “There is a much higher price point for both species in the U.S. and that is what will ultimately make the business viable.”
It took six months, he said, to get a response from the Department of Environmental Health on the July 2016 application.
In January 2017, after multiple inquiries, the department wrote to his wife and business representative Maria Yapelli to say it did not recommend the application for approval because the same equipment could not be used for processing food for animal and human consumption and because the proposal lacked sufficient detail on food safety controls.
The rejection letter did not cite any law or regulation or say what detail was required, according to Mr. Foreman.
He said the company provided details of the requirements it had met to comply with U.S. federal law and after a meeting in April it received partial approval to process iguana meat for human consumption. However, the approval carried the restriction that lionfish or food for animals could not be processed at the plant.
The company wrote through its lawyers to the Department of Environmental Health in June, suggesting it could seek a judicial review of the decision.
“Your decision to restrict our client solely to the processing of green iguana meat and solely for human and not animal consumption … renders our client’s facility practically useless since it is not viable to operate on such a limited basis. Of equal concern is the fact that you have not provided any basis in law or practice for your decision,” attorney Sharon Roulstone wrote in a letter requesting reconsideration of the application.
The letter notes that the business has met all existing local requirements as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standards for handling, processing, packaging, labeling and importing of meat products in the U.S., which it says are the same for both human and animal consumption.
Roydell Carter, the director of the Department of Environmental Health, declined to comment for this article.
A response to Ms. Roulstone’s letter from the Attorney General’s Chambers indicates that the Department of Environmental Health is concerned about the risk of cross contamination between lionfish and iguana meat and is seeking further information about cleaning and scheduling practices.
It also highlights concerns about how the iguana will be processed for animal feed, which involves the whole carcass rather than just the legs and tail.
“The DEH wishes to work through its concerns with your client with the aim that the restrictions currently in place can be lifted,” the letter states.
It indicates that the Department of Environmental Health still requires more details on the process, including test results of sample batches, as well as details of the company’s cleaning and sanitation practices, storage practices, record keeping and recall procedures.
Mr. Foreman says he is reluctant to supply any more information that is not set down in a law or guidance document that will be applied equally to all other food production companies.
“Where does it stop? That is the issue,” he said. “I want them to write down what a food manufacturing business is required to provide, because if someone else shows up, they need to be held to the same standard. All we want is for clear requirements to be drafted and for everyone else to have to meet them.”
Given the length of time the application process has taken, he said he does not want to provide information that is not currently legally required.
“We consider some of what they are asking for to be our intellectual property,” he added.