Killer chemical retails in Kenya despite fears in other markets
By Macharia Kamau | May 21st 2019
Three rulings made over the last one year against chemical giant Monsanto’s product Roundup should be a cause of concern for Government agencies charged with overseeing the safety of agricultural inputs.
In the separate cases, jurors ruled that Roundup – a herbicide manufactured by the company – is to blame for causing cancer after the firm used harmful ingredients in formulating the weed-killing product.
The company was consequently ordered to pay billions of shillings to the victims.
In the latest case concluded last week, the firm was ordered to $2 billion (Sh200 billion) in damages to a man who claimed the herbicide caused him cancer.
The rulings have fuelled a long-running debate about the company’s products in other jurisdictions, including the European Union.
Kenya has, however, been sitting pretty despite the numerous farmers and farmhands who handle the chemical on a daily basis and the danger that this and other chemicals targeted at the agricultural industry pose at both the farm level and at dinner tables in homes. The country is awash with other herbicides that use glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, and which is said to be cancer-causing.
The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) appears unmoved by the jurors’ verdict in the three cases.
The agency, which is one of the several Government entities that have to approve such products for sale locally, said it is watching keenly the developments but is yet to give a position.
This is contrary to other jurisdictions, such as in the EU, where the bloc’s Parliament has in the recent past been regularly monitoring herbicides and other glyphosate-based agricultural inputs.
In 2017, for instance, it agreed to allow continued use of the glyphosate products for another five years until 2022. There is, however, pressure from the EU Parliament and consumer lobbies that might see such products banned after this grace period.
“As far as Roundup goes, what you have read in the media is what we have read. But I can assure you that Kebs takes seriously issues surrounding chemicals that are consumed in this country. We have world-class labs that can carry out tests that can detect any elements that we think are harmful to this country. We are on top of that,” Kebs National Standard Council Chairman Ken Wathome told Financial Standard.
He added that should the situation warrant it, Kebs would take the initiative and start testing the products – particularly Roundup – given that it has a mandate and the equipment to undertake such market surveillance.
“We take our own initiatives and we have internal mechanisms where we can take the lead but also listen to the public. We are listening to what is coming out of it before we can decide whether it warrants action,” said Mr Wathome.
The gravity of the Roundup matter is seen in more than 5,000 cases that Monsanto is facing in the US. Bayer, the German pharmaceutical firm, recently completed a $63 billion (Sh6.3 trillion) acquisition of Monsanto.
It is not the first time that State agencies have appeared unperturbed by similar developments in other jurisdictions, where legal systems and even regulators have strongly held multinationals to account for their mistakes that are detrimental to consumers.
An example is Johnson and Johnson whose popular baby powder is on the spotlight for containing cancer-causing asbestos.
Among the cases brought against the firm saw it ordered to pay $4.7 billion (Sh470 billion) to some 22 women who claimed the long-term use of the company’s baby powder led to ovarian cancer.
Just like Monsanto, the firm is facing thousands of other similar cases.
Kenyan authorities have, however, remained mum.
Consumers have also spoken out about firms they claim are dumping inferior products in the country while marketing far much better quality in other markets. A case in point is Procter and Gamble’s Always sanitary pads whose local consumers claimed left them with burns, rashes and irritation after use.
It was claimed in March this year that the firm had been importing to Kenya sub-standard products compared to those in developed markets as well as Egypt and South Africa on the continent.
The firm, however, said the products sold in all markets are designed at a central point and are of the same quality.
Kebs afterwards said it had taken up the matter and was undertaking independent tests but has not come back to the market with the test results. Mr Wathome declined to comment on the issue, saying it is still under review.
To the credit of Kebs, however, it has a huge list of banned products. In 2017, it banned milk and milk products, including dairy-based chocolates following reports that the Chinese milk contained melamine, a white powder used in making of products such as Formica, floor tiles, whiteboards and kitchenware.
It was allegedly added to milk to increase protein levels. The regulator also banned eggs and other egg-related products from the Asian country.
The Consumers Federation of Kenya (Cofek) said a mix of laxity and corruption within government agencies will continue exposing Kenyans to cancer and other risks.
“Most of these products that are said to be cancerous or have other negative impacts on consumers do actually meet the stands set by Kebs,” said Secretary General Stephen Mutoro.
A researcher with a local university noted how destructive some of the agricultural inputs are, saying some of them are to blame for rising cancer cases in the country.
“I’ve seen a number of people from my rural place working on farms die of cancer. Looking back, we traced it to toxic exposure of pesticides and other synthetic agricultural inputs,” said the researcher.
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