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Plug quality loopholes in food supply chain

The rise of local agricultural industries (agro-industrialisation) has had both positive and negative effects on the economy.

While indigenous agro-industrialisation has helped create wealth and employment, studies show that the pace of its growth is responsible for massive poisoning of fast-moving consumer goods.

And in the absence of an effective regulatory regime, consumers will continue to suffer from serious diseases like cancer for a long time. Agro-industrialisation is expanding in Kenya, but not all industries are subjected to rigorous regulation to safeguard consumers.

Virtually every year there is a study sampling products in this sector. Such studies report shocking findings, but almost always, nothing is done about it.

Prior to 2005, most studies were conducted after serious outbreaks of aflatoxin poisoning where several people died, especially in 2004.

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Increasingly, academics have taken to regular research and many of the findings are strikingly similar. In this article, I will select three studies, including the most recent.

A 2006 study titled ‘‘Aflatoxin B1 and M1 Contamination of Animal Feeds and Milk from Urban Centres in Kenya’’ by Kang’ethe and Lan’ga, which was funded by the University of Nairobi’s Department of Public Health, Pharmacology and Toxicology and the Division of Public Health at the Ministry of Health, established that 72 per cent of the milk from dairy farmers, 84 per cent from large and medium scale farmers and 99 per cent of the pasteurised marketed milk had aflatoxin levels that exceeded the World Health Organisation (WHO)/Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) levels that more often than not cause serious diseases.

In conclusion, the researchers warned that their findings should be a wake-up call for stringent monitoring of raw materials for these industries and feed samples to prevent cattle exposure to aflatoxin-contaminated feeds, which would lead to milk contamination, eventually causing human exposure through consumption of contaminated milk.

In 2007, the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded Ellen Yard and others to look into aflatoxin exposure in Kenya.

In the study, ‘‘Human Aflatoxin Exposure in Kenya, 2007: A Cross-sectional Study’’, they detected high serum aflatoxin B1 in 78 per cent of the randomly selected serum specimens.

The study concluded that aflatoxin exposure is a public health problem throughout Kenya, and it could be substantially impacting human health. Wide-scale, evidence-based interventions are urgently needed to decrease exposure and subsequent health effects.

The most recent research led by Johana Lindahl of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) basically validates the many other studies in the country. The study focused on three products; maize, sorghum and milk; in poor neighourhoods.

It is in such areas that there is virtually no regulation of small processors of these products. Some have no capacity to detect poisoning of either the cereals or milk.

Their vulnerability is such that they can buy contaminated raw materials from unscrupulous businessmen and sell it to ignorant processors.

The study findings show high aflatoxin levels in maize, sorghum and milk fed to children in Nairobi’s poorest regions, causing stunting of children and cancer.

Continued neglect of a proper regulatory regime on consumer products undermines the government’s efforts to ensure universal health for all citizens. It is far less costly to institute preventive measures.

There have been many cases where imported contaminated cereals simply disappear into thin air, but we all know that it ends up in someone’s dinner table.

In 2010, a court order that 31, 871 bags of maize allegedly imported from South Africa be destroyed by burning was ignored. We still don’t know what happened to the maize.

Both the Kenya Bureau of Standards and the Pharmacy and Poisons Board have never been effective due to underfunding as well as a broad mandate that overlaps with other agencies. Food requires a dedicated strong regulatory environment.

Using technology to trace cereals’ value chain and adoption of International Standards Organisation (ISO) certification would be helpful in reducing incidences of food poisoning.

In conclusion, I want to draw your attention to another study by Trucksess and Wood in 1994, which recommended that in order to prevent future aflatoxicosis outbreaks, it was necessary to explore public health interventions that promote effective production, storage and processing of homegrown and commercial maize.

In addition, surveillance that monitors aflatoxin concentrations in food and incidence of acute jaundice in humans may prevent widespread outbreaks of acute aflatoxicosis.

William Foster an American war hero once said, “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.”

If agro-processors embraced quality, the entire supply chain would change.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business

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