Planned agency unlikely to improve food safety

Emily Chebeya harvests Irish potatoes from her farm in Endebess Sub-County. [Harold Odhiambo, Standard]
Safe food is essential for our health and well-being, yet in recent months it has raised conflicting political views and interests especially when it comes to food testing.

Efforts to ensure that the food produced in Kenya is fit for human consumption has taken a new dimension following the announcement by the ministries of Health and Agriculture of their intention to launch a national food safety agency overseen by the two ministries jointly. But this is a structure filled with risks.

Agencies charged with food regulation have been criticised for quality failures, from aflatoxins in maize, poor quality cooking oil, pesticides residue in fruits and vegetables and antibiotic-filled meats. Without a doubt, every country faces these challenges, and the lesson that has been learned globally is that involving multiple agencies in combined and competing oversight of agricultural and health causes deaths.

In fact, the aspect of merging the two was already raising concerns in relation to the embattled bill to launch a Kenyan Food and Drug Authority.

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Initially, that bill was to be presented jointly by the ministries of Health and Agriculture as a government initiative. It was even announced as a fast track bill by the President’s office in December 2018, only to disappear completely and then be replaced by a private member’s bill without agreement or input from either ministry.

Yet, as the two ministries now announce they are keeping food and drug regulation separate and running food under a single national food safety agency, this latest proposal continues to raise an issue that has proven calamitous elsewhere; defining where along the food chain the Ministry of Agriculture starts and ceases to be responsible for food safety.  

Recent media coverage has been dominated by concerns over pesticide residue. But addressing such concerns calls for a clear definition of the two ministries’ responsibilities, and not an amalgamation of these agencies.

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For instance, produce traceability currently lies under the Ministry of Agriculture, so too do health issues involving animals. Thus, if cases of unsafe meat arise under the new national agency, where would the Ministry of Health step in? At the butcher’s shop, the slaughterhouse, when animals are being quarantined, at the packaging point, when meat is being transported or at retail outlets?

These are tough questions that need to be analysed before a law that aims to save lives ends up causing deaths instead. For that has been the result of the very same merger of food safety management elsewhere.

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In the US, in 2010, two producers recalled more than half a billion eggs after regulators traced salmonella that made nearly 2,000 people sick to unsanitary conditions at two Iowa farms.

At first, it looked like an embarrassing lapse by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety system, in that it had missed problems in millions of eggs stamped with a USDA grade for quality. But, in fact, regulators hadn’t missed it.

A 2012 report from the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general found officials from the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) were aware the company’s egg-laying barns had tested positive for salmonella over four months before the recall.

An Agricultural Marketing Service inspector had also visited the farm two weeks before the recall and observed the same sanitation issues. The problem was that the agencies that discovered the health hazards weren’t responsible for overseeing that part of the food safety system and had not passed on what they knew to the agencies that had the authority to act.

As it was, the FDA had jurisdiction over eggs in their shells, but a USDA was responsible for eggs processed into egg products. APHIS was responsible for ensuring that laying hens didn't have salmonella, but the feed the hens ate was under FDA control.

Same route

In a similar tangle of mixed responsibilities, up to 5,000 people died and 325,000 were hospitalised due to food-borne illnesses as the US government recalled 25 million pounds of beef following poor inspections by the FDA.

Such cases finally prompted the US government to announce the disbanding of its FDA and move all its food regulation under the Department of Agriculture.

Tanzania has since taken the same route with its Tanzanian Food and Drug Authority (TFDA). On July 8, 2019, Tanzania’s parliament passed a bill to abolish the TFDA citing the confusion of roles in food safety as the cause. This unravelling of food regulation, and placing it under agricultural oversight, reflects the global food safety structure too.

Food and Agriculture Organisation manages food safety along the entire value chain while World Health Organisation supports food safety through exposure assessments and monitoring of the health impact of food hazards or epidemiological surveillance.

Thus, it will surely benefit Kenyans if the Health ministry now moves to support food safety risk assessments through exposure assessment and epidemiological surveillance while the Agriculture ministry is left to handle produce safety management across the value chain.

This is because Agriculture ministry is best placed to control producers and agricultural markets.

Mr Ojepat, CEO Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya

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