When the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) lifted the ban on two brands of maize flour recently, there was an uproar among Kenyans on social media platforms.
The move came a few days after two brands of peanut butter that had been found to contain toxins we allowed back into the market.
Several complainants blamed government and Kebs for its lack of oversight, saying the industries were poisoning people while the standards enforcement agency was watching by the sidelines.
While the ‘keyboard warriors’ form a small segment of the population, the few Kenyans with access to the Internet represent the feeling among many Kenyans.
This is as the number of cases where manufacturers fail to comply with the laid down rules rise amid claims that their products have toxins way above the globally acceptable limits for human use.
The Kenyans called for the disbandment of Kebs. The lobby, Consumer Grassroots Association said Kebs had failed to “ensure food in our market is safe for human consumption” and posed the question whether it should be disbanded.
Others felt that Kebs was lenient to manufacturers whose products were found to be wanting. Some rooted for fines to “manufacturers found to be negligent.”
Kebs did not specify what penalties, if any it had meted out on the rogue manufacturers whose products fail to meet the required standards.
This leads many to conclude they are let off the hook with just a slap on the wrist, despite having penalties prescribed by the Standards Act. “The increase in the number of alerts does not necessarily mean that substandard goods are increasing,” said Kebs, responding to our queries.
“It is because Kebs has strengthened its surveillance activities by increasing staff and deploying more resources for market surveillance and number two is that we have adopted the approach of informing consumers more on quality issues.”
It added: “This way, they can make informed choices and empower them to complement the Kebs effort of ridding the country of substandard goods.”
The Standards body noted that it might not be feasible to have presence in every factory to arrest harmful products before they leave for the market and instead, follows a global practice of certifying manufacturing systems and doing random tests.
It also appears to be accusing manufacturers of not keeping up with the certified systems, though it is doesn’t punish them whenever they flout the set procedures.
“One hundred per cent inspection by a regulator is not practical as it would require an inspector in each factory. Kebs adopts the international best practices and standards which recognises that it is the responsibility of the manufacturer’s responsibility to place compliant goods in the market,” said Kebs.
“However the manufacturers need to adhere to the controls that have been agreed in the certification process. “
In enforcing standards, Kebs said it undertakes its market surveillance and testing of products either through planned schedules or investigates complaints raised by consumers and stakeholders.
While it is supposed to operate independently, certain instances have raised questions at how independent the entity is.
Back 2011, its former director general the late Kioko Mang’eli told a committee in the parliament of the pressure he had been receiving from senior State officials to release maize imports in 2009 that was of questionable quality - including having high moisture content.
A similar scenario unfolded this year, where a cargo of edible oil which Kebs impounded last year as it had not met local standards was released to the market on the order of the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Trade Peter Munya.
Other than the failure to meet standards – including being fortified with Vitamin A – the oil whose worth was placed at Sh10 billion had been impounded for a year.
There are questions as to whether it had gone beyond its shelf life by the time it was released to the public. Kebs said its operations are guided by the law, dancing around the question as to whether it still is an independent entity. It is also apparent that the June order by the CS directly contradicted what Kebs believed was wrong with the oil impounded.
However, this is not the first time Kebs alongside the Trade, Industry and Cooperatives CS, is finding itself on the wrong side of the law. The inquiry report into the importation of illegal and contaminated sugar tabled in parliament last year found that Kebs, under the direction of then Trade CS, failed to discharge its duty.
“The relevant investigative agencies should investigate the then Trade, Industry and Co-operatives CS under whose docket the Kebs falls,” the recommendations stated in part. “This is to establish the circumstances under which Kebs failed to undertake adequate market surveillance to guarantee the safety and quality of sugar in the country.”
The sugar was part of the 829,000 tonnes imported by 135 firms in 2017 when the country was in the heights of a general election. Departmental Committee on Agriculture and Livestock Chair Emmanuel Wangwe said the sugar importation brought out the inefficiencies of State entities including the Kenya ports Authority, Kenya Revenue Authority, and Kebs
“For example, an importer wrote a letter to the Kebs. There was communication to that effect and Kebs could not tell the difference between products,” explained Wangwe. “There was the importation of raw sugar and table sugar in bulk being given two different letters.”
Two Kebs officials, a Kilindini port health officer and director of an importing firm were later charged at the Mombasa High Court over the issue. The inspection officials were charged for allowing 10,000 bags of illegal sugar into the country.
However, even as former Kebs bosses find themselves in court with the standards body having one of the highest turnovers at its corner office, the players who pull the levers remain untouched.
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