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How officials okayed tainted maize imports

By | May 6th 2009 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Standard Team

A damning report by two Government agencies and the Public Health ministry this week claims highly-placed individuals in Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s office and the Agriculture ministry intervened to have maize unfit for human consumption released to the public.

The grains in one hatch (compartment) of a South African ship that brought the maize to Mombasa were found to be contaminated with aluminium phosphide and containing a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance caused by an explosion that occurred at sea.

The report also implicates Naivasha MP John Mututho who also chaired the parliamentary committee on agriculture that last week indicted the PM’s son, his personal assistant, as well as Agriculture and Special Programmes PSs. The PM denied the report at the weekend, a position that was restated last night by his spokesman Dennis Onyango.

But the new report alleges that a personal assistant of the PM and another senior official called and pressurised Government officials to comply with their directions.

This ultimately led to condemned maize being declared fit for human consumption.

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Some of the 22,500 tonnes of maize from South Africa is loaded onto lorries in Mombasa in February. [PHOTO: MAARUFU MOHAMED /STANDARD]

Further, it has emerged that taxpayers could pay millions more in demurrage (storage charges) for the 6,350 metric tonnes of grains still in Mombasa.

This follows a court ruling last week by Justice Joseph Sergon denying preservation and re-testing of the grains in dispute as requested by the shipper. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), which owns the consignment, confirmed through a Coast manager the grains were being held at Grain Bulk stores in Mombasa, although he did not indicate the cost so far.

The report, prepared by Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) and the Public Health ministry, chronicles the events that publicly played out as a ping-pong game between Public Health Minister Beth Mugo and the PM, but could have been more protracted behind the scenes. Some 21,000 metric tonnes of maize were imported from South Africa through a shipping company, Afgri Trading Company, aboard Mv Fonarun Naree between November 15 and 24, last year.

Explosion at sea

Kebs claims that information obtained from a pre-shipment contractor, SGS International, indicates that an explosion occured in the vessel when it was at sea. Upon arrival and inspection on November 25, last year, the grains in one compartment was found to be contaminated with aluminium phosphide and containing the cancer-causing substance due to the explosion.

But sampling by Kebs on the condemned maize on board Mv Fonarun showed it was only three metres deep, while the actual depth of the hull in which the consignment was stored was 14 metres deep.

On December 16, last year, the report says, Kebs received calls from a top NCPB official and the PM’s aide. The aide pleaded that the maize in hatch 3 be released as animal feed, a plea Kebs granted on condition it supervised the procedure. A meeting was held at the PM’s office on February 26, the report says. It was chaired by Raila and resolved that a private firm — Intertek Solutions — does further tests. This, the report says, was in complete disregard of Kebs’ findings. But Intertek analysed the grains for aflatoxin, according to a statement from the PM’s office. However, it was silent whether they tested for aluminium phosphide that Kebs had detected. Aluminium makes grains grey. Indeed, Kebs had confirmed that the grains had no traces of aflatoxin.

Mr Mututho is implicated in the report for "propagating the contradiction theory" that implied Kebs and Government Chemist’s reports were not in agreement.

Senior official

Kebs claims it was also instructed by a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture to allow importation of genetically modified (GM) maize against the requirements of international conventions or Kenya’s obligation. He is alleged to have exerted pressure on an Industrialisation ministry and NCPB officials on January 23. On his part, the Industrialisation official was accused of engineering changes at Kebs through a string of letters with an official at the PM’s office "because the management has become a hindrance to business".

The senior official at the PM’s office was alleged to have arranged a meeting with a businessman, at a city hotel on January 10 to push for the release of the grains.

A manager at NCPB is reported to have visited Kebs on February 11 accompanied by an unidentified businessman to influence the release. The report alleges that the NCPB official requested facilitation in clearing the maize upon receipt of the letter condemning Hatch 3 (maize)" through phone calls to Kebs between December 13, last year, and January 15. The report further alleges that he paid journalists to disparage Kebs.

When contacted on telephone, the businessman declined to respond to inquiries by The Standard, saying we had no right to know what he does. But he admitted he is a friend of the senior official at PM’s office.

"I know him as a friend. I do business but how does what I do concern your company? How does The Standard intend to benefit from what I did then? That is a stupid question of fitina (malice) which I cannot answer."

We were unable to contact Mututho because he was reported to be out of the country.

maize imports Public Health ministry National Cereals and Produce Board NCPB
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