Independent food safety regulator urgently needed
Over the years, food safety concerns have been largely ignored by relevant stakeholders with serious consequences being experienced by Kenyan consumers. It is evident from recent reports that Kenyans are consuming heavily contaminated and unsafe foods and beverages leading to a number of health problems and foodborne diseases and this is no longer news. What is shocking however is the nonchalant attitude and inaction that the relevant regulatory agencies and government bodies that are supposed to protect them, have developed. This is largely due to poor governance and structures in place that cannot be leveraged to address food safety problems. Usual stereotypes and the culture of Kenyan consumers with regard to food safety concerns in the food supply chain further exacerbate the situation.
Encouragingly, however, there has been a sense of public outrage in the recent past. Revelations that Kenya’s beloved maize flour brands have aflatoxins and a third of the pesticides being sold in Kenya contain unapproved and banned active ingredients and compounds which can potentially have multiple chronic health effects drew the ire of Kenyans online. On the flipside, there are netizens who thrive on creating social media memes from matters of national concern including public health.
With the prevalence of cancer cases most of which are suspected to be linked to the foods we are ingesting; you would expect that such news of the sale of contaminated foods would provoke all Kenyan consumers and see them demand that government takes responsibility and take corrective measures to address this perennial problem. But no! Instead, a good number have turned this into a laughing matter.
While this could be a defense mechanism occasioned by a collective sense of helplessness, and with the government agencies that are supposed to protect consumers seemingly unperturbed by what is happening, perhaps we need to consider another option – the establishment of an independent body on which we will transfer the overall mandate of verifying the safety and quality of foods, beverages and related products in the country and approving the same for sale. Where applicable, that regulatory body would have oversight in the entire food value chain – from production, processing, distribution, and consumption. This is because going by recent reports, most of the players in the value chain, be they farmers, manufacturers or distributors are not adhering to the safety precautions of the products they are dealing with, thereby exposing consumers to all manner of health risks.
In establishing such an agency, we need not re-invent the wheel. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is a good example which can be used in benchmarking as Kenya exports to the EU with better compliance as opposed to what is observed in the domestic food markets. We can also draw lessons from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA which has been in existence for over a century but obviously make necessary adjustments based on our unique situation.
According to their website, FDA is charged with the responsibility of protecting public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of America’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.
While FDA’s scope is broad, we could perhaps start with food and drinks but with the provision of expanding the list later.
Even as all these administrative measures are being undertaken, we cannot continue to sit on the fence as we are being fed and sold harmful and contaminated products largely by people who are only out to make a quick buck. Kenyan consumers and citizens should not only be aware of their human right to food but also access to safe and nutritious foods for an active healthy life. Intensive lobbying by wananchi for more funding and costs sharing by the government for effective interventions will be essential in keeping the country free of dangerous contaminants in foods.
This is a matter that needs to be addressed urgently, soberly and deliberately. As a country, we can no longer afford to separate the issue of food safety as we focus on food availability and affordability. Food security only truly exists when people are able to, at all times, feed themselves in dignity and when the quality and safety of what they are consuming is guaranteed. If we do not act together, we shall surely hang together.
This article was written by Dr. Catherine Kunyanga, is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi