Amendments to the trade and business licensing process could increase the possibility of new restaurants and food establishments violating food safety standards, according to leaders at the Department of Environmental Health.
“It is posing a problem,” DEH environmental health officer Gideon Simms told the Cayman Compass. “It is very important that these premises are properly screened.”
Before amendments were made to the Trade and Business Licensing Law, a business hoping to prepare or serve food needed to submit its application and plans to the DEH and get health regulator’s approval prior to the business opening its doors.
“Before you [got] the licence, you had to come here first,” DEH director Richard Simms said. “Which means, inspection. We go there, we look at the kit-out of the facility, make sure you have proper hoods and sterilised areas, refrigeration is nice, everything is good.”
That’s not the case anymore.
Trade and business licences now can be issued to food establishments without the applicants liaising with the DEH or having its officers inspect the premises before preparing or serving food to the public. Ministry of Commerce documents show 122 new restaurant and bakery licences issued in 2019. None of these establishments would have required a DEH food safety inspection before opening.
The ministry says it encourages applicants to consult with DEH but there are no measures in place requiring them to do so.
“They don’t have to come right away before they operate,” Richard Simms said. “They can just go straight in. Because the main thing is that they have the [trade and business] licence, you know? So they get the licence and they can go straight into business. And at some point [when] they come to DEH afterward, [it] can be a year after when it’s time to renew.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure says the amendments were made to simplify the trade and business licence application process.
“While the procedure allows for a business to obtain approval of a license without the Department of Environmental Health inspection at the onset, it remains a very important part of the process for certain categories of businesses,” according to the ministry spokesperson.
“Sometimes we are blamed for stuff that we don’t know anything about”
A list of all licences is provided to the DEH as soon as licences are approved, according to the ministry spokesperson. DEH leaders, however, did not mention such a list during an interview with the Compass and maintained it is difficult for them to keep track of new food establishments.
“Sometimes we are blamed for stuff that we don’t know anything about,” Gideon Simms said. “Because what happens is that some of these applicants are not coming to us … because they already have the [trade and business licence].
“So we are ultimately the ones that will be blamed for some of these things.”
The problem is compounded when an applicant is given a licence to operate from their homes, he said.
“If you’re cooking from a kitchen under improvised conditions; let’s face it, a typical household sink, you can probably prep two chickens in it, am I right?” Gideon Simms said. “But when you’re going to be prepping 25 chickens, where are you gonna be doing that? So what some of these people do, they is set up improvised sinks in the back of their premises and they do the prep outside – exposed to the elements, exposed to the flies and all this sort of thing.”
The DEH does have a representative on the trade and business licensing board to make recommendations, but those at the DEH says they’re not always aware of all the new licencees, especially those operating out of their homes. Without the DEH inspecting food establishments before they open their doors, DEH leaders say it increases the possibility of food being served under unsanitary conditions.
“Potential for issues may arise in those situations,” according to the ministry spokesperson. “So generally, the Board will encourage current license holders in this category [food establishments] to obtain an appropriate location for this type of business and will actively discourage the granting of new licenses unless a commercial location with appropriate equipment and food handling standards is obtained by the applicant.”
A vast majority of the new trade and business licences issued in 2019 to food establishments – approximately 85 of the 122 issued – have locations listed in residential areas, according to documents provided by the Ministry of Commerce. Some of those, however, are listed as catering companies and bakeries rather than traditional restaurants. It is unclear whether business owners are operating out of those residential addresses.