Rotting Inside

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

There’s poison in Kenya’s food chain and it’s killing us slowly.

by Mariga Thiothi

Several weeks ago, one of Kenya’s most decorated journalists, Dennis Okari, launched a documentary that shocked the country. A documentary that left everyone talking and asking questions. Through Red Alert, he highlighted how supermarkets were secretly using Sodium Metabisulfite to preserve meat way beyond its normal shelf life.

“We are monitoring the debate going on globally, but as far as we are concerned glyphosate will continue to be available for use by farmers in Kenya because there is no scientific proof it causes cancer.” — Peter Opiyo, Pest Control Products Board Chief Executive

Sodium Metabisulfite is used in controlled doses as a preservative, among other things, but can cause an array of other problems, if unregulated. According to Solvay America, an international chemicals company, “exposure to sodium metabisulfite can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. If inhaled, sodium metabisulfite may cause sensitization. Breathing sodium metabisulfite dust may aggravate asthma or other pulmonary diseases and may cause headaches, breathing difficulties, or heart irregularity. Ingestion may cause gastrointestinal irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.”

That’s what’s in our meat. But the story doesn’t end there.

In what was considered the world’s largest fine, an American court awarded $2Bn to a man whose cancer is said to have been caused by Monsanto’s Roundup Weed Killer. Though the amount was later slashed to $75M, the ruling still created a worldwide impact with sceptics finally agreeing that something needs to be done about herbicides and pesticides, which find their way into our food. France announced a plan to ban glyphosate based products including Roundup Weed Killer and other countries have taken various stands, too.

Kenya, on the other hand will not stop using it any time soon. Peter Opiyo, the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) Chief Executive has stated the government’s position, which doesn’t include banning glyphosate.“We are monitoring the debate going on globally, but as far as we are concerned glyphosate will continue to be available for use by farmers in Kenya because there is no scientific proof it causes cancer.” Countrywide, agronomists and farmers have raised the alarm over toxic farm inputs, many of which are believed to be carcinogenic.

Coffee Management Services Mills Managing Director, Kamau Kuria, said, “the country risks losing international markets for some of its cash crops due to continued use of such herbicides as 2,4-D and Roundup, believed to cause life-threatening diseases like cancer.”

A World Health Organisation study found that over 100,000 Kenyans die due to lifestyle diseases each year and a Ministry of Health report recently revealed that there were just under 50,000 newly reported cases of cancer in 2018. What was thought to be a rich man’s problem due to eating unhealthily is now a national problem. We’ve had to rethink what lifestyle diseases actually are and to what extent that ‘eating healthy’ will actually save us.

Eating healthy involves much more than the selection of fresh produce at the market and now involves asking more questions about the source of the food, how it is grown and the food distribution chain all the way to your plate..

You could “eat healthy”all your life and still be a victim of pesticides, preservatives, unregulated GMOs or an endless amount of other pollutants that find their way into our food chain.

Back in 2018, The Government Chemist, which is Kenya’s national central chemical testing lab confirmed the presence of asbestos in common thermos flask brands available countrywide. Asbestos increases the risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer and inhalation of asbestos can cause changes in the lining of the chest cavity and can lead to fibrotic lung disease. One could get the best quality tea, grown organically and follow it’s chain of production and still get toxins from the thermos flask.

The Kenyan Dairy Board finally enforced a milk crackdown in 2014 for milk adulterated with contaminated water and the even bigger problem of the use of hydrogen peroxide (a bleaching agent.) Back in 2016, a report by the Ministry of Health was done on the use of calcium carbide, which was used in the fruit and vegetable industry to artificially ripen food products. The Kenya Cereals Board raised the alarm in 2017 over aflatoxins in maize caused by improper storage. In 2018, police impounded one million pounds of rice from Pakistan and 400 containers of cooking oil from Malaysia which were toxic and didn’t meet the set food standards.

It’s not just one product, it’s almost everything.

Ian Kilavuka, a supermarket attendant, mused that even they know that some of the products they sell are toxic. “We know that they’re expired or that they’re bad for people’s health but we have to pay bills. Who are we going to tell anyway? Please tell people to be careful and just because it’s sold in a supermarket doesn’t mean that it’s safe.”

A burgeoning population like Kenya’s with a growth rate of 2.5 percent per year has led to a massive rise in food demand. The massive rise in food demand led to the need to move from more organic farming to more large scale farming for higher yields at a lower cost. This situation has been made worse by global warming, which has changed the weather patterns and seasons and plants that aren’t genetically suited for the conditions the country is facing now. “The push to address this led to a slippery slope resulting in lower and lower standards for food safety, which has led to the situation that we are in now.”says American-based Kenyan nutritionist, Lydia Mutua.

Kenya’s agricultural industry contributes directly to 26 percent to Kenya’s GDP and another 27 percent indirectly in other parts of the economy. There’s a lot of money pumped into the agricultural industry by the government, but unfortunately there exists a lack of accountability at every level, and unchecked corruption in the respective government agencies is quite literally killing us.

The primary agency charged with standards, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), has been on the spot time and time again for the lack of scrutiny that ensures below standard and unsafe products penetrating the market. What was once a mark of quality is now just another sticker on products. KEBS puts the non-compliance rate by producers at 20 percent, but the number on the ground seems to be significantly higher. The bureau has been in the spotlight over corruption with their Managing Director and 6 others being arrested last year over substandard fertilizer and fake KEBS stamps.

When asked about the substandard products by a Nation reporter, Eric Chesire, the director of Quality Assurance at KEBS, said that “Manufacture and sale of uncertified products touches on the country’s public health. KEBS alone can’t win this battle. But wrongdoers can’t always prevail over the system. Kenyans will eventually win the battle.”

“People are getting sicker later on in their lives and they can’t connect food they ate twenty years earlier to their current woes and a radical shift is needed in how the country handles food quality,”added Lydia Mutua.

Citizens are bearing the brunt of systemic failures by institutions that are meant to protect them, and the ones bearing the heaviest brunt, are the poor.

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