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State agencies' wars leave Kenyans exposed to contaminated food

By Editorial | November 18th 2018

On Tuesday, four government agencies will give their verdict on whether or not millions of bags of maize imported under questionable circumstances last year are fit for human consumption.

Their report will give the country direction on just what should be done with the discoloured maize in the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) silos across the country. 

The fresh tests were ordered after scientists in various government institutions failed to agree on the findings of the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), an agency tasked with setting quality standards.

Kebs’ report had found that majority of the 256 samples it had tested from depots located in 37 counties failed the necessary test to be allowed on Kenyans’ dining tables. The maize had at least two toxins that do not only cause cancer but also affect proper development of children through stunted growth.

Stunned by the results, the Ministry of Agriculture wanted a second opinion that would involve several other players to ensure the findings are solid. This is the right thing to do.

However, a number of questions must be answered alongside their findings. The first is; how can Kebs get wrong a simple test like that done on maize? Why would their findings be contested when the mapping, sampling and methodology was done in consultation with the NCPB?

But most fundamentally, which government agency is actually supposed to have a final word on testing of food?

Is it the Ministry of Health? The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis)? The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) or Kebs? 

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With the resources and talent behind Kebs whose testing department is headed by a PHD holder, how can they have been wrong and what does this mean?

The second question is where did the maize come from and how much quantity is affected? No one wants to face this question. And it is obvious. Whichever way it goes, it will leave government officials with egg on their faces.

But the biggest puzzle is how would maize, required to have a shelf life of 24 months, go bad in less than a third of that period?

The other matter that should worry Kenyans is revelations that fresh tests are part of a plan to overturn the previous findings of Kebs.  Maize is such an important commodity in Kenya given that it is the main staple food. 

It makes no sense why Kebs would want to say the maize is not fit for human consumption if it in deed is. What would be its motive? Why would it lie to Parliament and cause a scare among the consuming public?

The only entities to benefit from this new report are the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) and its parent ministry, whose reputation is on the line.

The inability of NCPB to safely store maize for the country to use during dry days and spare Kenyans from unnecessary shortages every year is just as dumbfounding as it is incompetent.

But one thing is certain, though. Either the bad maize will find its way to the tables of Kenyans in coming months or the maize will have to be destroyed, at another loss to taxpayers.

Then months later, we will be back to the yearly cycle of shortages, importations and destruction. With food security being part of the Jubilee government's Big Four Agenda, such mistakes should not go unpunished. 

To start with, NCPB must be fixed and its infrastructure overhauled. The warehouse receipting system should also be fast tracked to ensure that genuine farmers are not disadvantaged and bullied out of NCPB queues when it matters.

Lastly, the Government should not let such important national parastatals like Kebs and NCPB function for months on end without a substantive chief executive. 

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