Urban poison: The danger in eating street boiled eggs and kachumbari

Such food is seen as a cheaper alternative. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Hard-up Kenyans are consuming unwholesome foods that expose them to life-threatening bacteria, The Standard can reveal. As the nation reels from the third wave of Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with mass layoffs from a contracting economy, many workers have turned to roadside food vendors for sustenance.

Such food is seen as a cheaper alternative- it saves cooking costs and time. But it could prove more expensive in treating resultant illness. And since the sector is unregulated, virtually anyone can bring anything to the streets to sell for profit – to the detriment of public health.

Samples of boiled eggs and the popular kachumbari salad were collected from different points of the city, all strategically selected due to their high human traffic. These spots were Tea Room, on the former Accra Road, recently named Kenneth Matiba Road, a big catchment area for travellers to Central and Rift Valley areas; Railway Station, Bus Station and Odeon Cinema area.

Cost of living

The latter three are key arteries for commuters to different parts of the city. Cumulatively, the four spots handle tens of thousands of commuters each day, many of who are city workers keen to cut the ever-rising cost of living. Eating out is one of the options.

“I’ll take these three eggs for dinner today,” John Kyalo said when we caught up with him near Tea Room. He said he found the eggs cheaper, “especially in the evening when you don’t have time to cook.”

Kyallo was not the only one waiting to be served. A small queue was forming slowly, as men and a few women waited for their turn. Some preferred to pack away a few boiled eggs, others had them cracked open and a pinch of salt sprinkled, and a scoop of kachumbari added to flavour the simple meal.

These food vendors rake in tidy sums. [Courtesy]

In a country where the World Bank estimates that nearly one in every three Kenyans subsists on less than Sh200 a day, it makes solid sense that most would turn to street food.

The food vendors rake in tidy sums. At Railway terminus, Ken Njuguna, who has been hawking eggs for two years, said on a good day he made a profit of up to Sh3,000, selling between six to 10 trays of boiled eggs.

Njuguna says one of the challenges he faces is raids by county askaris over food licenses. Sometimes he pays Sh200 in bribes daily, just to keep them off his back. 

When pressed to reveal the source of his eggs, Njuguna became irritated. “Why are you asking all these questions? Are you government officials? Do you want to arrest me?” He later fled.

We decided to put the foods to the test. Picking samples in sterilised bottles from the Kenyatta National Hospital’s National Public Health Laboratory, we bought samples from the four hot spots at Tea Room, Odeon Cinema, Bus Station and Railway terminus. The samples were delivered to the lab within 30 minutes of collection. The samples were tested for bacteria and any other contaminants.

The results were astonishing. All the eggs and kachumbari were found unfit for human consumption. They were contaminated with disease-causing germs, the most dangerous being a high presence of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria.

This is usually attributed to human or animal faecal contamination. The E. coli type of bacteria is normally found in the human intestines and this germ can cause infection and severe symptoms like diarrhoea and dehydration. The most severe form of E. coli can cause kidney failure.

Kepha Ombacho, from the Ministry of Health’s Department of Public Health, said any amount of E. coli bacteria in food indicates the presence of human or animal faecal contamination, hence should not be consumed. 

“For any cooked food to be safe it must contain zero E. coli and a reasonable number of coliforms, which vary depending on the type of food, but should not exceed 10,” Dr Ombacho says.  

Food expert Hosea Kandagor says E. coli bacteria are prone to cause contamination to food. 

“Contamination happens when these bacteria are transmitted to water or food through human waste or animal droppings. This happens mainly when such waste mixes up with water that is meant for consumption. Consuming such foods will make you experience mild diarrhoea and vomiting,” Kandagor says. 

E. coli bacteria are prone to cause contamination to food. [Courtesy]

This means sometimes it is hard to tell the source of the contamination, as it could happen during preparation, or poor handling by the vendors at the point of sale. Kandagor said sometimes vendors could be using dirty water to prepare the eggs and salads or dirty cutlery and even storage containers. 

Further, since the vendors also act as cashiers, handling food and money at the same time, this could be another source of contamination. 

One informant said the bulk of the eggs sold in city streets were prepared using water from the Nairobi River and boiled in city back streets using all manner of materials, including toxic, discarded car tyres.

Experts say to contain the sale of unwholesome food in Nairobi streets, food safety enforcement authorities need to scale up inspection of areas where the food is being sold.

“Most of these vendors operate between 5pm and 9pm when we don’t have any county askaris or public health officials doing rounds to monitor the quality of food being sold, or collect samples to establish the take action against them,” he said.

Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS) Health Chief Officer Ouma Oluga said they were aware of the issue of food safety and quality in Nairobi.

He explained that the problem was not just in Nairobi but countrywide, and that it was being addressed from the legislative and enforcement fronts.

“We are legislating on issues of food safety and there is a food certification Bill and another food safety Bill we are trying to pass because we have found that there is a gap in the law of prosecution,” said Dr Oluga.

It is hard to effectively enforce action against street food vendors because some of them are not registered, they have no physical premises and they are not classified as food handlers. This, he said, was a result of the gaps in the Public Health Act.

 Regulatory framework

“We are working to ensure on a way where we can put the regulatory framework and assist them by first of all registering them as food handlers, training them regularly, testing them as food handlers and also engaging them on good safety measures for food,” he said.

The chief officer was quick to highlight that some of that food may be contaminated from the source. He said the sausages or eggs might be sold to vendors when already infected, meaning they came from the factory infected.

Nairobi County Health CEC Hitan Majevdia said the street food business was thriving due to the price discrepancy created by restaurants. The vendors sell affordable food compared to that in the restaurants.

He says prior to the takeover of the Health docket by NMS, he mooted a proposal to have a food street in the CBD, where all the vendors can sell food from 5pm to 9pm daily, akin to a model adopted in Zanzibar’s Forodhani food market.  

 [Additional reporting by Josphat Thiong’o]