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Unilever gives up court fight over Aromat recall

A tin of Aromat. The National Biosafety Authority says Unilever did not seek its approval before importing the seasoning that contains GMO. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU
A tin of Aromat. The National Biosafety Authority says Unilever did not seek its approval before importing the seasoning that contains GMO. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU 

Unilever has given up the legal fight to stop the recall of Aromat food flavour from shop shelves by the biosafety regulator over genetically modified content.

Unilever said on Friday it had withdrawn a suit filed in July against the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), which had threatened Unilever executives with arrest and the recall of the food seasoning.

The authority maintains 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 materials.

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

James Jakachira, a director at Unilever East Africa, confirmed the withdrawal of the suit, arguing that the multinational is seeking to settle the row with NBA out of court.

“We have agreed to amicably resolve any issues surrounding our product with the authority and I am certain that at the end we will reach a good conclusion,” said Mr Jakachira. Unilever had succeeded in getting interim orders stopping the NBA from recalling Aromat from supermarket shelves and the subsequent arrest of its chief executive.

The withdrawal of the suit comes amid warnings by NBA chief executive Willy Tonui that the agency will take further action should Unilever continue selling products with GM content without seeking regulatory approval.

“We could not take any action (against Unilever) before because the case was before court, but now that it has been withdrawn we have the grounds to act according with the law,” he said.

A spot check by the Business Daily revealed that supermarkets were still selling Aromat.

Dr Tonui said that the ban on GMO products remains in force and that importation of products that contain modified organisms without approval of the authority violates the law.

But Unilever had challenged this position in court, arguing that there is no clause in the Biosafety Act that requires anyone importing products derived from GMOs to seek approval from the regulatory agency.

Dr Tonui said the authority had intensified surveillance at border point to check all products entering the country to curb unauthorised imports.

The ban on GMOs was introduced in 2012 when a task force formed by the then minister for Public Health, Ms Beth Mugo, recommended the foods were not safe for consumption.

Scientists want the government to lift the ban on GMOs to address a looming food shortage after a global journal last year retracted an article that it had published which linked genetically modified food to cancer.

They argue that the ban has held back important work being conducted on biotechnology by Kenyan scientists, which intends to produce better crop varieties to tackle disease, reduce chemical use and increase yield.

Article 52 of the Biosafety Act (2009) imposes a fine of Sh20 million or a jail term not exceeding 10 years on any person found dealing in GMOs without the approval of the authority.

Currently, a report of the taskforce on whether GMO products should be allowed in the country awaits presentation before the Cabinet.

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