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'Mercury' sugar comes back to haunt Kenyans, five years later

Business
 From left: Former DCI boss George Kinoti, Deputy Public Health Commissioner Wanyama Musiambo and former IG Joseph Boinnet inspect over 2,000 bags of contraband sugar impounded in a warehouse in Eastleigh, Nairobi on June 5, 2018. [File, Standard]

Questions abound as to why about one million kilogrammes of sugar condemned and earmarked for destruction had not been destroyed 5 years later.

The sugar, which the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) had deemed unfit for human consumption in 2018 on claims it contained mercury, has now been released to the market irregularly and there are fears that it could cause heath complications.

The irregular release resulted in the suspension of 27 state officials from 11 government agencies, including Kebs managing director Bernard Njiraini. It is however unclear whether the sugar can be recovered for safe disposal. There are also queries as to whether this may have found its way to retail.

It is the same sugar consignment that was a subject of controversy in 2018 when it was claimed to contain mercury due to poor handling process, after it was ferried in an open ship that had previously carried fertiliser, coal and other items that may have contained harmful chemicals.

Conflicting reports

There were however conflicting reports as Kebs at the time said the sugar did not have mercury but copper and lead, which are also harmful to human health. The standards agency was, however, clear that the product had to be destroyed. The sugar had been earmarked for conversion into industrial ethanol, which can be used by industries for production of different products.

The irregular release of the 20,000 bags of 50kg each comes amid shortage of sugarcane in the local and global markets that has resulted in local sugar prices surging to record highs. There are plans to increase taxes on sugar with the Finance Bill 2023 proposing an excise duty of Sh5 per kilogramme that could further push prices up.

State House on Wednesday said the Cabinet Secretaries for the National Treasury and Trade and Industry had suspended some 27 officials from 11 different state agencies for failure to follow through with the destruction. Majority of the 27 officials are from the Kenya Revenue Authority and Kebs.

"The sugar consignment, comprising of 20,000 bags (50kgs), had been imported into the country in the year 2018 and condemned by Kebs for want of expiry date specification. Kebs condemned the consignment as unfit for human consumption and directed that the consignment be reshipped and destroyed at owners costs," said the statement by Chief of Staff and Head of Public Service Felix Koskei.

"In discharge of its statutory mandate, the Kebs National Standards Council approved the destruction through conversion of the consignment for industrial ethanol use. The industrial ethanol conversion was to be implemented under the joint supervision of Kebs and Nema, within a multi-agency framework."

Mr Koskei said that the conversion to ethanol was on condition of involvement of regulatory agencies, sourcing for a distiller through an open and competitive tender and the winning bidder paying taxes before the sugar was released to them.

"It has since been established that the consignment was irregularly released. Further, the conditions relating to open and competitive enlisting of the distiller were breached and the applicable taxes were not paid," he said.

"In recognition of the unique mandate of the agencies as the vanguards of public health and safety, it is manifest that some officers in the relevant agencies abdicated their responsibilities, at the risk of public harm."

Reports indicated that condemned sugar consignment had been released to a Thika based firm, which in a letter to Kebs acknowledged that it had on April 20 received the same. The firm said that plans were at an advanced state to initiate the destruction process.

It is not clear whether the firm, which is an alcoholic beverage manufacturer, intended to convert the sugar into ethanol for its own use or for resale.

It, however, received a demand from the KRA on April 28, in which the taxman demanded that it pays tax but went on to release the consignment to the company.

Among the casualties in the Wednesday purge was Kebs Managing Director Bernard Njiraini. Kebs on Thursday announced the appointment of Esther Ngari as the acting managing director in a raft of changes in senior management.

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