Unilever faces court action over GMO in Aromat

Food seasoning Knorr Aromat. Photo/SALATON NJAU
Food seasoning Knorr Aromat. Photo/SALATON NJAU  

The State-run National Biosafety Authority is preparing charges against consumer giant Unilever and retail chains for selling Aromat food seasoning, which has been found to have genetically modified (GM) content.

The authority says that Unilever did not seek its approval before importing the seasoning whose labelling indicates that its ingredients include salt and maize flour, which contain 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.

“We are taking action on Unilever because we have confirmed that Knorr Aromat indeed has GM content contrary to the ban and Biosafety Act. They should have first sought approval from NBA (National Biosafety Authority),” Philip Tonui, the CEO of the Authority said in an interview with the Business Daily on Friday.

“All goods containing GM ingredients must be approved by NBA before you even talk of thresholds. It is only after approval by NBA that the GM materials can be labelled as required by the Biosafety Labelling Regulations of 2012.”

Prof Tonui added that only products with undetectable or less than one per cent GM content are exempted from labelling.

If found guilty, Unilever faces a fine not exceeding Sh20 million and its executives risk a jail term not exceeding 10 years.

“First, we will target those who import. The supermarkets may also be charged as an accomplice,”’ said Prof Tonui. “We are addressing how to remove Aromat and other products, too, from the shelves.”

A spot-check by the Business Daily in major retail chains like Nakumatt and Tuskys showed that Aromat was still on the shop shelves, days after the Health ministry issued an alert over the product.

The Business Daily was unable to obtain a comment from Unilever despite a promise from the multinational to issue a statement last Thursday.

The authority is also pursuing the importers of Bokomo, a grain and oatmeal cereals made in the UK.

“Bokomo Chocolate Oat Cereal and Bokomo Multigrain Cereal are some of the unauthorised brands and we are still testing several other corn-based products originating from GM growing countries,” said Prof Tonui.

Unilever was put on the spotlight last week after Makueni MP Daniel Maanzo alerted the parliamentary Committee for Agriculture, Livestock and Co-operatives of Aromat’s ingredients.

The committee was being briefed by a taskforce that worked on a report that will guide policy on GM products

According to Mr Maanzo, it was improper that the advertisement promoting Aromat failed to clarify or mention that it had GM content. Millers have been pushing the state-run NBA to approve importation of GM maize to mitigate a looming shortage.

The government has forecast a shortfall in maize supply of five million 90kg bags ahead of the August harvest season.

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