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Experts warn on high risk of toxic food in city

From leafy vegetables to fresh fruits, an unseen menace may be lurking on dinner plates of families in Nairobi.

Experts warn that a large portion of the produce consumed in the city may be contaminated with dangerous pesticides residue, bacteria, and other harmful substances.

From farm to fork, Nairobi’s food chain is plagued by systematic failures that have eroded consumer protection and placed public health in peril.

In an interview with Spice FM, CEO of Food Cloud Anthony Maina and Kenneth Ayuko, policy lead at RISC Research and Advisory, painted a grim picture of Nairobi's food supply chain.

"Over 40 per cent of French beans grown for export are rejected due to high pesticide residue levels," said Maina.

"Shockingly, some of this rejected produce ends up being sold in local markets."

Ayuko added that the extent of contamination in Nairobi's food supply remains unknown due to a dire lack of monitoring and testing capacity.

The problem is exacerbated by consumer demand for cosmetically perfect produce, driving some farmers to excessively spray pesticides right before harvest.

Furthermore, the dilapidated state of Nairobi's main Marikiti market, overflowing with 9,000 daily traders compared to its intended 600-800 capacity, creates unsanitary conditions ripe for contamination.

Adding to the crisis, Nairobi's street food culture sees vendors operating in extremely unhygienic environments, with makeshift stalls located next to open sewers and roadside drainage.

"You'll find your tomatoes pyramided on gunny sacks moistened by sewage overflows," Ayuko said.

Both experts agree that without drastic interventions, including modernising aging food system infrastructure and ramping up testing facilities, Nairobi's residents remain at heightened risk of foodborne illnesses.

The 2023 report from Heinrich Böll Stiftung titled Toxic Business: Highly Hazardous Pesticides in Kenya shows that studies have frequently detected pesticide residues on fresh produce at levels exceeding allowable limits.

In 2018 alone, 46 per cent of 1,139 samples tested by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service were contaminated with pesticides, while 11 per cent had residues exceeding European Union maximum limits.

These findings spurred Kenyan scientists and consumer advocates to escalate calls for the withdrawal of highly hazardous pesticides from the market.

However, such demands have been met with pushback from agricultural interests, prioritising production over public safety.

As the crisis deepens, Kenyan health authorities have acknowledged the severity of the situation.

Public Health Principal Secretary Mary Muthoni said that this year's World Food Safety Day marked last Friday under the theme Food Safety: Prepare for the Unexpected highlighted the urgency of bolstering national readiness to address food safety emergencies of any magnitude.

"Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, while foodborne illnesses impede socioeconomic development by straining healthcare systems and harming national economies, tourism, and trade," said PS Muthoni.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that approximately one in 10 people worldwide fall ill from foodborne illnesses annually, over 200 diseases are caused by eating contaminated foods while 40 per cent of the foodborne diseases are carried by children under five.

PS Muthoni notes that beyond pesticides, Kenya faces a list of additional food safety hazards. These include aflatoxin contamination in cereals, legumes, milk, and dairy products; veterinary drug residues in foods of animal origin, fueling antimicrobial resistance; and rampant food adulteration practices like using hydrogen peroxide and formalin to illegally extend the shelf life of milk.

As concerned citizens and consumer advocates intensify pressure for reform, the African Union and the International Livestock Research Institute have joined forces to develop first-ever food safety guidelines tailored to the continent's unique challenges.

The forthcoming framework aims to provide realistic, actionable guidance for African governments to improve food safety across the vast informal sector.

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