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Copper, lead present in tested sugar, says KEBS

By Rawlings Otieno | Jun 22nd 2018 | 4 min read
National Assembly Trade Committee Chairman Kanini Kega (second R) with his Vice Cornelly Serem (C) chat with KEBS CEO Charles Ongwae (L), Trade PS Chris Kiptoo (2nd L) and East African Affairs PS Betty Maina (R) after the committee meeting on the controversial sugar with mercury and copper at Parliament on June 21, 2018. [Boniface Okendo/Standard]

The sugar you put in your tea could be containing high levels of copper and lead - up to 20 times above the recommended levels - according to a stunning admission by authorities.

It is a revelation that will jolt many Kenyans, considering the commodity is on the table in most places, including households, hotels, schools, hospitals, and when it is not being scooped to mix in tea or porridge, it is a sweetener for many products like snacks.

Yesterday, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), the State agency mandated to ensure quality and standards, clarified that the normal sugar fit for human consumption contains 2 milligrams of copper per kilogramme.

However, the tests on one of the consignments seized in the ongoing crackdown on contraband sugar that has flooded the market, found that there were 20.7 milligrams of the metal per kiloggramme of sugar.

“The copper that was detected was above the required levels identified by the Kebs standards, making it unfit for consumption. The recommended levels of copper in sugar is supposed to be 2 milligram in one kilogramme packet,” the agency said in a report presented to the National Assembly’s Trade Committee.

Had yeast

Charles Ongwae, Kebs managing director, said copper was found in samples taken from the sugar impounded in Ol Kalou, Isinya, Kisii, and Kitui.

The samples also indicated that the brown and white sugar had yeast and molds, polarisation, colour conductivity ash and failed to meet the standard specification.

Too much copper is dangerous for human consumption, as it could lead to heart problems, jaundice, coma and even death.

Experts also warn that lead poisoning, especially in children, can cause decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and/or hearing.

The development is worrisome, considering the contraband sugar has now been seized in many parts of the country.


The agency further clarified that although the samples of sugar tested so far had no traces of the mercury, they had been subjected to further microbiology tests.


Yesterday, Ongwae told members of the committee that the samples the agency tested and whose results they shared with the Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI) on June 11, did not contain any poisonous metals, including mercury, as earlier alleged by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i.

“We carried out the tests following public outcry that sugar consumed in the country has mercury and from the samples we tested there was no such thing. However, what we found is high levels of copper and lead,” said Ongwae.

Ongwae backed the statement on Wednesday by Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohammed, under whose docket KEBS falls, that the sugar tested by the agency did not have traces of mercury.

He, however, clarified that the results that were pronounced by Matiang'i did not originate from Kebs.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), elemental mercury are toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems.

The world’s health body also indicates that ingestion and inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.

“We are not the only agency with the capacity to test the quality of goods. We don’t know who did the test of the sugar the Interior CS said contains mercury. We would appreciate if that information is given to us,” said Ongwae.

He told the parliamentary committee that imported sugar is tested and issued with certificate of compliance from the country of origin and once in the country, is further subjected to lab tests.

Compliance standards

He, however, said some imported sugar, which did not conform to the compliance standards, would be recalled with enhanced multi-agency collaboration. 

Ongwae said more testing was being done in other parts of the country and that a report would be issued to the DCI.

“Testing is still underway on sugar seized in Matuu, Kisii and Ol Kalou,” he said.

Asked by the committee’s vice chair Cornelly Serem (Aldai) and Raymond Moi (Rongai) at what point the sugar got tested once in the country, Ongwae said Kebs always inspected imported goods twice - in the country of origin and port of entry for verification.

"The goods are then given Pre-Export Verification of Conformity (PVOC) certificates before they are allowed into traders' shelves," he said.

He said imported goods must be approved by Government agencies, with Kebs measuring quality, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) for customs and tax issues and Kenya Ports Authority for food safety.

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