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How Kenya's food safety profile is worsening, and why it's time to act

 A waiter at Koriema butchery in Baringo County chopping roasted goats meat gfor his customers on January 27,2023. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The recent study by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) revealing the contamination of raw pork and poultry meat in supermarkets is a cause for concern.

The research conducted by experts from the World Animal Protection, Center for Microbiology Research and Kemri indicates that consuming the meat poses a potential risk of bacterial contamination and the spread of foodborne illnesses.

The study highlights increase of Antimicrobial Resistant (AMR) pathogens, a public health concern gaining nationwide attention.

The development of antibiotic resistance to broad-spectrum medications provides limited alternatives, making it difficult to treat bacterial infections that do not respond to readily available drugs.

These findings highlight the need for urgent action to improve food safety. Like many low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), Kenya is experiencing a rapid epidemiological and demographic transition characterised by a double burden of infectious and non-infectious diseases. This transition is resulting in a rapid increase in the burden of non-communicable diseases, which is likely linked to unsafe food.

Kenya's food supply chain system involves many stakeholders, including farmers, processors, importers, wholesalers, retailers, consumers, service providers subcontracted by these operators, and policymakers and regulatory bodies. However, there are several challenges facing the food system safety in Kenya. These include a lack of strong coordination and oversight mechanisms of the various institutions and legislation, poor harmonisation of standards and regulations, inadequate protection of consumers, inadequate laboratory and surveillance systems, and lack of consumer awareness and capacity-building initiatives.

It is essential to measure the level of contamination in commonly consumed foods in the country, compared with internationally approved standards such as those provided by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Evidence of unsafe levels will require collaborative intersectoral remedial action to protect the public from the adverse health and economic effects of food poisoning.

The stakeholders must work together to enforce high standards of food hygiene and sanitation throughout the supply chain, especially at the time of production, processing and packaging, to prevent the introduction of bacteria to the food and the subsequent spread of foodborne pathogens.

Retail outlets must adhere to hygienic principles when handling and onward processing of food especially pork and chicken meat products to reduce the potential risk of microbial contamination.

Innovative solutions

The government should take the lead in driving these changes, including reforming policies to support food safety, engaging communities and raising awareness, and investing in the food system. We should hold the food markets accountable for ensuring food safety. We must prioritise investments in research and development to understand the challenges facing food safety in Kenya and develop innovative solutions to tackle them. It is also crucial to improve the country's laboratory and surveillance systems to enable the detection of foodborne pathogens and AMR. The current laboratory and surveillance systems must be improved and modernised to meet international standards. The development of new technologies and diagnostic tools will enable us to identify foodborne pathogens quickly and accurately and detect the emergence of AMR.

The Kemri study provides a glimpse of the levels of bacterial carriage in chicken and poultry meat sold at major supermarkets across Kenya. It is essential to continue conducting similar studies regularly to monitor the situation and identify emerging trends. It is also vital to investigate the source of contamination and take remedial measures to reduce it.

In conclusion, we are in a situation where the Kenya's food safety profile is worsening, and urgent action is needed to improve it. We need to generate additional evidence to support policy reforms, community engagement and awareness on food safety, re-imagine and invest in the Kenya food systems, and hold the food markets and governments accountable on food safety.

We must work together to build a food system that is safe, sustainable, and resilient and that supports the health and well-being of all Kenyans. The report by the Kenya Medical Research Institute should serve as a call to action for all stakeholders involved in the food supply chain system. Failure to address this issue could result in a public health crisis, which will have far-reaching consequences for the country's population.

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