Minister Lee maintains: “No interference with food inspections”

POSTED: 03/1/16 2:17 PM

St. Maarten News – Members of Parliament and Minister Emil Lee (Public Health, Social Development and Labor) spent the afternoon talking at cross purposes in a meeting dedicated to the controversial inspection by a multidisciplinary team of the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino on February 4.

While Minister Lee made clear that no instruction was given to stop the inspection of the resort and that inspections at food establishments have continued as usual, MPs kept coming back to the perceived preferential treatment given to the resort.

Minister Lee said in a brief introduction that he welcomed the opportunity to profile the work of the inspectorate. “There has been no hindrance of inspectors and no intervention in their work,” he said. “The inspectorate of my ministry is still conducting food inspections. The only thing is that the joint inspections are under review.”

Minister Lee said that there still is no official report about the disputed inspection in Maho on February 4, whereby inspectors closed down The Point restaurant. It was only allowed to resume business on Monday February 8, after the company had corrected all violations found by inspectors.

The minister said that in 2015, 0.37 percent of all controls resulted in an order to halt operations. In the first two months of this year, the percentage is 6.7 percent. “It shows that the inspectorate is functioning well,” the minister said.

“In Maho there were four critical violations and operations at The Point restaurant were closed that day. The inspectorate returned on Saturday but because not everything was corrected, the restaurant remained closed. On Monday they were in full compliance and could resume operations.”

Minister Lee said that the inspectorate’s primary goal is not to halt business operations, but to improve compliance with food safety laws. “I do not see where there has been unfair treatment of businesses with these inspections,” he said. “We are in the process of improving the uniform treatment of all businesses.”

“The main goal of the inspectorate is to keep everybody healthy,” Inspector-General Dr. Earl best told the parliament. “We halt operations if necessary, but we do not close down businesses. That is up to the Ministry of Tourism and Economic Affairs.”

Independent MP Leona Marlin-Romeo was in particular interested in what went wrong during the inspection on February 4. She hinted at a different in treatment between businesses based on skin color, a statement MP Rodolphe Samuel later qualified as “an insinuation.”

Dr. Lloyd Richardson wants other ministers who also have a responsibility for the multidisciplinary team to come to parliament. He noted that the Maho Resort “has a history of not accepting these inspections.”

UP faction leader Franklin Meyers wondered about the authority of the Council of Ministers “to stop the inspectorate from executing its job. If locals get controls they have nowhere to run.”

“We should avoid the impression that there is preferential treatment,” remarked George Pantophlet (National Alliance). “The impression should not be created that the government does not want controls. It is about the manner in which they are done.”

With Pantophlet other MPs also asked about the report about the February 4 control but, as Minister Lee indicated, that is not available yet.

UP-MP Theo Heyliger noted that these controls could “go a bit differently” considering the interests of the tourism industry. “There is no need to go after cockroaches in such a hostile manner with a whole battalion.”

Christophe Emmanuel noted that some of his fellow-MPs apparently are unable to read. “It is ludicrous when individuals don’t read,” he said. “No stop-order was given to the inspectors. The restaurant in Maho was closed because of infractions.”

Minister Lee, in answering most of the questions, repeated that he never gave any instructions to the inspectorate. “Not before, not on February 4, and not after that date either. At no point was the joint inspection halted that day.”

Lee said that his ministry sent a report about the Maho-control to the ministry of justice on February 8. He furthermore said that the members of the multidisciplinary team, organized by the immigration department, know only half an hour before they leave which establishment they are about to control. “There are no directives from the minister. I have the authority to order an inspection, based on solid facts, but I cannot interfere with the inspection.”

Minister Lee said that he has “full confidence” in the inspectorate’s functioning.”

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