Unilever’s Aromat risks recall over GMO

Chief public health officer Kepha Ombacho at a past event. Photo/Suleiman Mbatiah
Chief public health officer Kepha Ombacho at a past event. Photo/Suleiman Mbatiah 

The Ministry of Health said Tuesday it would issue a directive calling for the withdrawal of Unilever’s Aromat food seasoning from the shop shelves over genetically modified (GM) content.

The food seasoning’s labelling indicates that its ingredients include salt, maize flour that contains genetically modified material and flavour enhancer, among others.

Kenya has restrictions on GM maize that have locked out major exporters including South Africa from the local market, which faces frequent grain shortages.

“From here, we will issue a circular to ensure that all the Aromat is removed from the shelves,” said chief public health officer Kepha Ombacho during a session with the parliamentary Committee for Agriculture, Livestock and Co-operatives in Nairobi on Tuesday.

“We work by doing general surveillance which is a continuous routine process and want to assure you that we will take action as per our mandate,” said Dr Omacho.

The pledge comes after Makueni MP Daniel Maanzo alerted the committee of Aromat ingredients, prompting the directive from the Health ministry.  

“Why is Aromat being sold under our watch while there is a ban on such food products? Kenyans are thus consuming GMOs unknowingly,” said Mr Maanzo, while displaying a sample of the food seasoning.

According to him, it was improper that the advertisement promoting Aromat failed to clarify or mention that it had GM content.

Committee members said that the flow of GM foods amounts to negligence. But Dr Ombacho maintained that no GM products have been allowed in the country.

The Business Daily was unable to obtain a comment from Unilever, the makers of Aromat by the time of going to press.

Millers have been pushing the state-run National Biosafety Authority to approve importation of genetically modified maize to mitigate a looming shortage. The government has forecast a shortfall in maize supply of five million 90-kg bags ahead of the August harvest season.

Ministry of Health officials and the task force chaired by Prof Kihumbu Thairu shared insight of the report that was to guide policy on GM products with the House team, but declined to disclose the recommendations.

“We are not allowed to share recommendations of this report with the committee until we present it to the Cabinet,” said Health secretary James Macharia.

The restriction on GM foods, according to Prof Thairu, was a precautionary measure on health concerns.

He said that there is a gap in the regulatory framework that has made addressing safety of GMOs for consumption in humans a challenge.

“The National Biosafety Authority does not address the issue of safety for human consumption, rather it handles the environmental impacts of GM products,” said Prof Thairu.

Last year, a global scientific journal retracted an article that it had published earlier that linked genetically modified food to cancer.