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Home / Health & Science

A toxic country: From breakfast to dinner, we eat dangerous food

HEALTH & SCIENCEBy ALLAN MUNGAI | Sun,Nov 17 2019 00:00:00 EAT
By ALLAN MUNGAI | Sun,Nov 17 2019 00:00:00 EAT

 Grilled lamb meat with tomato salad and ugali. (Courtesy)

A week ago, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) banned the sale of five brands of maize flour due to high aflatoxin levels.

A Twitter user shared a picture of his meal – ugali with beef.

A fellow user replied, “aflatoxin with a dash of sodium metabisulphite. Fine day for science” and amid laughter and applause, the tweet was retweeted about 1,500 times.

Kenyans are a people that draw laughter from the grimmest of situations but even laughter can no longer mask the nation’s frustration with the government.

As Kenyans were coming to terms with the realisation that we may have been consuming poisonous levels of aflatoxin and sodium metabisulphite – an agent used in the preservation of meat – two agencies mandated with checking the quality of medicines were squabbling over their roles.

Enforce the quality

The National Quality Control Laboratory and the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, two complementary agencies responsible for the safety of pharmaceuticals in Kenya are embroiled in a supremacy battle that threatens to endanger lives of Kenyans.

The squabbles could give leeway to entry of unregistered, counterfeit or substandard drugs and medicine into the country.

In Kenya, death is dispensed at the supermarket shelves, groceries and pharmacies because the institutions charged with ensuring quality checks are not effectively performing their roles.

Kebs has been in a spot over the sale of substandard and potentially unsafe products despite having the mandate to enforce quality standards.

“What exactly does a Kebs standardisation mark mean because it doesn’t actually mean “safe”, one Kenyan pondered on Twitter.

Earlier in the year, a story aired on NTV revealed how supermarkets and butcher shops were selling meat laced with exceedingly high amounts of sodium metabisulfite to give it a longer shelf life.

After health officials collected meat samples from outlets in Nairobi, six out of the 40 samples tested in government laboratories, had high levels of sodium metabisulfite.

While the Ministry of Health approves the use of sodium metabisulfite as a preservative in the right dosage (10 grammes per kilo), experts reveal it is likely to be found in excess in chopped pieces or packaged meat.

Yet the problem of safety of food goes beyond just the flour and beef. The fruits sold at your favourite grocery could have been ripened artificially using calcium carbide. The milk you consume could be laced with aflatoxin – which results from animals consuming feeds contaminated with aflatoxin – and hydrogen peroxide or formalin. 

Hydrogen peroxide is illegally used by traders to prevent the milk from coagulating. Hydrogen peroxide reacts with thiocyanate, which naturally occurs in milk but its use is not permitted in Kenya.

But the biggest food safety scandal was revelation that sugar consumed in Kenya was contaminated with mercury.

Mercury has adverse effects on the human body such as complications on the nervous and digestive systems, weakening of the immune system and kidney failure. It also causes cancer. 

Tests by the Government Chemist from samples of sugar impounded in Bungoma and Nairobi found traces of mercury.

The Government Chemist indicated that 0.5910 per parts per million (ppm) mercury was found in sugar sample from Bungoma, while tests conducted on another sample in Nairobi revealed 0.1151 parts per million of the heavy metal.

Kebs tests found traces of copper and lead in sugar seized in Eastleigh and Ruiri. The agency said it had so far tested 1,266,351 bags (50kg bags) out of the 1,319,668 bags impounded. Out of the 1.3 million bags, only 157,392 met standards required for human consumption. In Kenya, the aphorism ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ wouldn’t ring true, owing to some unscrupulous methods employed by fruit vendors to hasten the ripening of their stock.

In November 2017, Kepha Ombacho, Director of Public Health issued a circular warning the public to be vigilant when procuring fruits because vendors took the shorter and dangerous route to ripen them.

“As you are aware calcium carbide causes serious health hazards including cancer amongst other illnesses to consumers of the fruits and workers who are in direct contact during application,” Dr Ombacho said.

The use of calcium carbide in fruit ripening is banned in several countries, including Kenya, although enforcement can be a problem. 

According to sources familiar with the process, the calcium carbide crystals are wrapped in newspapers and stored with the unripe fruit in air tight containers, usually polythene bags. When calcium carbide comes in contact with moisture and heat it reacts to produce acetylene gas which induces the ripening.

The recent revelation that Kenyans could have been consuming maize meal with high aflatoxin levels reopened the debate on safety of the food consumed in the country.

Heavy rains

Kenyans are caught up in a seemingly endless loop, year in year out, where the country’s staple cereal is contaminated due to poor handling. In two years, more than one millions bags of maize - 984,102 in 2018 and 124,486 this year - stored at the National Cereal and Produce Board silos were contaminated with aflatoxin and were unfit for human consumption.

The Kebs decision to suspend the licences of five millers whose maize flour brands were found to contain high levels of aflatoxin comes as farmers in North Rift grapple to harvest amid heavy rains.

The ongoing rains have compounded the situation for farmers in North Rift Kenya majority of whom are unable to sun-dry their maize.

And with the NCPB silos still closed and the board yet to announce the price it will pay this year, the farmers are offloading their produce to middlemen who are currently offering between Sh2600 and Sh3000 for a 90kg bag of maize. There is some cautious optimism among farmers that the price offered by the government will be higher.

With the current unfavourable weather for harvesting, and maize drying being a critical step in the control of aflatoxin, Kenya is likely to find itself in the same aflatoxin position next year.

A report prepared in 2011 by Professor Erastus Kang’ethe of the University of Nairobi, showed the gaps in the maize production and storage that have allowed aflatoxin to thrive indicted the grain management practices.

In the past, aflatoxin, poor handling and lack of proper storage facilities were singled out as the main causes of maize contamination. The chances of maize developing aflatoxin, the paper said, increase significantly due to wet conditions during harvesting, as is being experienced currently in North Rift, the grain basket of the country.

Shelling the maize before it is dry leads to the breaking of the kernels and results in the growth of aflatoxin when the grain is not dried sufficiently.

The storage of maize in polypropylene bags, rather than the aerated sisal bags further causes moisture build up thus increasing the risk of aflatoxin accumulation.

On Wednesday, Trans Nzoia Governor Patrick Khaemba the governor blamed NCPB for contributing to contamination of maize with aflatoxin by poorly storing grains delivered to silos.

Mr Khaemba called for the sacking of NCPB management for poor storage of grains and ignoring standard practices. “The stores at the NCPB are in bad state. They are dilapidated and leaking and are the major sources of aflatoxin,” he said.

He claimed that the stores at NCPB have been neglected and unfit to hold maize for human consumption. “There is no reason for the government to punish flour millers when the maize  is from government stores,” he said.

- Additional reporting by Osinde Obare

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