Poisoned Sugar Exposes Kenya’s Broken Food System

Feature story - August 23, 2018
The worsening impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity in most natural-resource dependent countries like Kenya is introducing a new form of vulnerability that is often overlooked. Increasingly, food safety is becoming an issue of a major concern. Our food system has become vulnerable to unscrupulous businessmen seeking to profit at the expense of consumers’ health. This leaves millions of Kenyans exposed to food contamination.

Following last year’s food shortage due to diminishing productivity triggered by unreliable climate conditions, the government of Kenya allowed importation of duty-free foodstuff to meet the country’s demand. However, it has been confirmed from government laboratory analysis that some businessmen seeking to profit from illegal food importation activities brought into Kenya sugar contaminated with mercury.

Kenya is not new to such food safety reports. Back in 2016, Kenya Dairy Board arrested corrupt businessmen supplying milk containing hydrogen peroxide to consumers in Nakuru and Nyandarua counties. Not long ago, reports indicated traders using chemicals and toxic element in foods. Our food system has become a channel for agro-chemicals, toxins and heavy metals. 

In 2015, Simon Ndiritu while researching with Strathmore Business School on the emerging trends on Kenyan food safety among smallholder farmers, found that our food contains harmful agro-chemical residues such as pesticides, heavy metals and toxins. Heavy metals can be introduced in the farm or soil and water through farm inputs. These heavy metals and other toxins have been extensively studied by various international bodies. The research is consistent and shows serious health impacts on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, which may be fatal.

Unfortunately in Kenya, food safety issues are often overlooked until a major scandal or a tragedy takes place. Our response to food safety is  often  reactive than preventive. It is important that the discussion about food safety and food security is sustained. It has to include the farmers who produce the food, retailers who stock and store the food stuff and the consumers.

Additionally, there has to be preventive measures provided through policies as well as increased awareness among stakeholders. Sensitizing food handlers and retailers will strengthen food handling practises and ensure food safety for the consumers. Moreover, supporting sustainable and safe food production methods such as ecological farming especially among smallholder farmers through increased resource allocation is a sure way to eliminate contamination in our food system.

Ecological farming does not contaminate the food or the environment with chemical inputs thus ensuring local stable supply of safe and healthy food.

Kenyan consumers need to know where the food they consume comes from.  Having this information will help identify producers, retailers and stores that may have distributed contaminated  food. This  will aid consumers to  know  if they might have been exposed to contaminated products that could cause potential health risks.

Robust policy and regulatory provisions and a clear standardisation system that trace our food supplies through the value chain will help in ensuring that standards are adhered to and food safety guaranteed. It is absurd that our complex food supply system is regulated by many government agencies with overlapping mandates. This is confirmed by the recent blame shifting among the cabinet secretaries of Trade and Industrialization, Agriculture and National Treasury. Consolidating our  food safety functions into one independent agency would provide a regulatory structure better equipped to ensure that standards are adhered to.

Written by Amos Wemanya - Greenpeace Africa Campaigner