When was the last time you asked about the source of that fruit salad you enjoy after every meal? Are the tomatoes and kales you pick up from that mama mboga stall safe? And what about the milk you buy daily from milk ATMs?
Could the food we buy be laced with aflatoxin, a carcinogen? Many consumers continue to eat, especially fruits and vegetables, without caring about safety!
Worse still, the authorities have remained aloof as the people consume huge volumes of unsafe products. It is more worrying to note that though the government has provided legislation and support structures for food safety management; this is an area that is always fraught with dangers and numerous challenges.
Food safety experts now link fruit salads to the highest risk of microbial contamination that is causing foodborne diseases.
“Food handling and storage pose a food safety risk, resulting in microbial contamination apart from the excessive use of chemicals and pesticides.”
“When food security sets in, food safety goes through the window,” says Mr Eric Oguma, chairman Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisers of Kenya (SOCAA).
In Kenya, a number of practices along the horticulture and dairy value chains compromise food safety and increase food losses.
Globally, about 1.3 billion tonnes or one third of all food produced, is lost annually before it reaches the market or consumer. In sub-Saharan Africa, between 30 and 50 per cent of the food produced, is lost at various points along the value chain.
While the produce exported to the international markets conforms to strict food safety standards, what is locally consumed does not, leaving many consumers vulnerable to danger.
Mr Oguma says the use of unsafe water in postharvest handling of fruits and vegetables poses a major risk.
Poor food transportation, storage and unhygienic market displays are to blame for contamination. Kenya still lacks definitive statistics on foodborne illnesses as the government’s focus in recent years has emphasized non-communicable diseases, HIV/Aids and malaria.
A World Health Organisation study indicates that globally contaminated food caused 600 million illnesses in 2010 alone. Of these, 420,000 cases resulted in death.
“Consumer education and awareness to defeat the monster of unsafe food is critical,” he adds. “Dealers in fruits and vegetables need to make sure the water used to wash the produce is portable water- that which is safe to drink.
A majority of Kenyans only link food contamination to chemicals and pesticides. Consumers know very little about food safety,” says Mr Oguma.
The contamination starts from planting materials. Failure to observe good agricultural practices, including poor field hygiene, poor application and use of pesticides and fertilizers and poor harvesting measures, are other major causes.
A stringent regime of traceability of produce meant for domestic market is vital. According to a 2015 study titled, ‘Smallholder Dilemma on the Emerging Kenyan Food Safety’, a researcher at Strathmore Business School, Nairobi, found that most of our fruits and vegetables have residues of heavy metals and pesticides.
It is assumed that all produce getting into Kenyan markets have to adhere to good practices. However, the chances of adherence are very low due to weak enforcement mechanisms as a result of few staff directly engaged in the supervision of farmers.
Microbial-based contamination, for example, is majorly as a result of irrigation water used during crop production.
“A crop that grows closer to the ground has higher risks of microbial contamination,” advises Mr Oguma. Ambiguity on food safety surveillance systems and complacency of government officials are stifling the war against food-borne diseases.
”It is like we are at a crossroads; we don’t know who to blame for any outbreak. The officials do not care about food safety.”
Establishing a sustainable food safety system for the local market is hinged on strategic interventions. To this end, SOCCA is working in collaboration with SNV and IFPRI and other partners in the Voice for Change evidence-based project to increase the opportunities for improved consumption of safe food and reduce losses.
The initiative aims to facilitate dialogue and accountability forums at the county and national levels and monitor government budget on food safety and loss reduction.
The five-year project will also work towards providing status of food safety in the country, with the Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS Nairobi) implementing milk value chain, while SOCCA focuses on horticulture
Food producers and stakeholders should embrace commitment to “moral obligation and ethics to guarantee safety and life” Mr Oguma adds: “They need to guarantee safety to what they sell to the consumers. Supermarkets need to let the consumers have their own choice.”