Unilever has challenged the mandate of Kenya’s biosafety watchdog to regulate importation and use of products made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), adding a new twist to the ongoing case over ingredients used in its Aromat food seasoning.
The global consumer goods maker in a further affidavit filed in court Tuesday said that the mandate conferred on the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) was limited to living organisms, but not food products which have no chance of replication.
The biosafety regulator had moved to court to ban the use of Aromat in Kenya on the grounds that its ingredients contain GMOs.
“As demonstrated above, the respondent’s mandate is limited to restricting importation and movement of genetically modified organisms,” said Unilever in documents filed on its behalf by Iseme Kamau and Maema advocates.
The firm argued that the agency acted outside its mandate when it sought to seize or withdraw Aromat, which has no modified organisms.
It claimed that there is no clause in the Biosafety Act that requires anyone importing products derived from GMOs to seek approval from the regulatory agency.
The biosafety regulator had claimed that the law gives it discretion to approve or reject importation of products with GMO within allowed thresholds.
Unilever, however, argued that NBA’s control is limited to living organisms that may have impact on the environment.
The firm argued that the agency had misinterpreted the Act and therefore opposed an application by NBA to have the orders stopping criminal charges against directors of Unilever and Aromat removed from shelves lifted.
The firm admitted that Aromat contains some limited amount of maize flour derived from GMOs but denied claims that it is unfit for human consumption.
The firm argued that a test by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) only proved that Aromat has GM traces.
Unilever claimed that the biosafety body relied on an international report to flag its product, a report which it says has since been recalled.
The NBA last week filed an application seeking to lift High Court orders that stopped it from interfering with Unilever’s importation and sale of Aromat food seasoning over alleged inclusion of GM ingredients.
NBA also asked the High Court to vacate orders stopping arrest of Unilever Kenya chief executive Yaw Nsarkoh over the same claim, arguing that the products had been imported into the country without necessary approval.
The agency instead wanted the court to order the seasoning removed from the shops shelves. The product has been in the Kenyan market since 2001.
NBA said one of its officers purchased Aromat from a supermarket, which was later tested at Kephis.
The agency said the results revealed that the product has traces of GMO, after which it said it issued seizure orders to Unilever to withdraw Aromat from shops pending further orders.