The conversation on food safety is due
As the discourse on food security continues to gain prominence, coming first in the President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda and promoted by civil rights organisations, county governments and private sector entities alike, there is a need for Kenyans to have an honest and sober discussion on food safety. The recent shocking revelations and controversies around the safety of major food products and commodities could only be a tip of the iceberg of the brewing malpractices in Kenya’s food industry that not only endanger lives but also threaten to kill the food system by diminishing food quality, safety levels and traceability of these products.
With food safety issues being downplayed in the full glare of the public by the responsible government agencies, there is an even diminishing chance to save and possibly restore healthy practices in the food industry in Kenya. The member agencies of the National Food Safety Coordinating Committee have remained aloof even as the public cries out for action on food safety issues. Some of the agencies, funded by the Kenyan taxpayers, have gone ahead to prioritise food safety in airports and export markets, leaving the locals to consume all manner of unsafe foods. These foods range from vegetables laced with heavy metals from polluted irrigation waters, cancer-causing chlorofluorocarbons from unsafe agro-chemicals, meat containing poisonous ‘preservatives’, maize with aflatoxin, drinking water with microplastics and now sugar laced with copper, lead, mercury and who knows what else! Which begs the question, what is still safe in our food market?
With a few cases out in the public eye, it is clear that the country is a big man society where the mighty get away with murder literally while the mwananchi gets punished. A recent example being the man who was jailed within a day, for killing a thousand cats for meat, whereas importers of thousands of metric tonnes of the counterfeit sugar are still roaming free with no action brought against them. Those who aided the redistribution of fertiliser containing mercury to farmers are also at large.
Instead of decisively addressing these food safety concerns, the political showdown has taken centre stage with some defending their “innocent entrepreneur friends,” and others threatening to name the “real culprits”. The Government has not been spared – with different key ministers, under whose dockets several oversight authorities fall, giving contradictory statements. The media too has not been spared as they have had to change headlines depending on who they last spoke with.
We live in a global village with increased cross-border trade and a growing global food market. In as much as it is a great opportunity to access food commodities from other markets at competitive prices, we should be wary of the risks associated with that option. It is the responsibility of the government to protect its people from anything that may lead to loss of lives or negatively impact the quality of life. The responsible agencies should be custodians of people’s welfare and put the interest of the people first.
I am told of a story of a tomato grower who ate his own poison. The man had been pressed for cash due to his kin’s demise and was required to make his contribution. His tomatoes were just about ready for the market but not yet ripened. He decided to spray his tomatoes with heavy chemicals to ripen them in good time to meet his needs. He got a tomato trader from his contacts in the market and was happy to find a ready market for them. He made enough cash to take his entire family to the funeral. There, he was among the first to be served with well-cooked meat and a thick tasty soup from his tomatoes. Such sad stories are replicated all over the country.
Food safety is not just about individuals or events that have made headlines. It can only be achieved by putting in place the right systems, creating sufficient public awareness of food safety standards and practices, as well as properly coordinating food safety operations. The government should adopt a fully-fledged food safety authority that would be responsible for coordinating food safety operations, awareness, and the regulation of food trade and processing in the country. This would enhance transparency and efficiency in addressing the seen and yet to be seen food safety issues in the country. Also, the government should strive to increase the competitiveness of local food production systems to reduce dependency on other countries for key food commodities such as sugar. If we are indeed what we eat, then we should all be concerned.
By Emmanuel Atamba Oriedo, Youth Ambassador Route to Food Initiative.