Mark Hyman, an American physician and New York Times best-selling author’s observation that “our tastes buds, our brain chemistry, our biochemistry, our hormones and our kitchens have been hijacked by the food industry” aptly summarises a rising food phenomenon in developing countries.
The idea that food is consumed fresh is gone. Climate change, technological advances and challenges of rural urban migration have made availability of fresh foods unpredictable. As a result, most food is now available in processed forms. Food is now frozen, canned, packaged, cooked, changed in nutritional composition with preservatives or prepared in different ways to delay decomposition, thus preserving the food for later consumption.
In effect, we are transitioning from fresh foods to new food supply chains that will ostensibly reduce waste and ensure that there is enough food for everyone. Unfortunately, studies show these very foods contribute to lifestyle diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
The food industry has a tendency of using excessive sugars and other preservatives like sodium nitrate as an enticement to consumers. Although the food industry is dominated by multinational companies (MNCs), there is a small but growing local manufacturing food industry. Much of the food, however, is distributed by informal enterprises that have little regard for best practices in handling food.
There is no comprehensive law that regulates the food industry in Kenya. Instead, there are multiple agencies co-ordinated by the Department of Public Health (DPH) in the Ministry of Health and Public Sanitation. The DPH enabling legislations include: Public Health Act (Cap 242), Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act (Cap 254), Anti-Counterfeit Act and Meat Control Act (Cap 316).
Other agencies with critical responsibilities in food regulation include: Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) that is responsible for assurance on the quality of agriculture inputs and produce and the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), which is responsible for governing and maintaining the standards and practices of the science of measurement in Kenya.
It is the agency that is supposed to ensure that the country adopts internationally recognised standards such as the International Standards Organisation (ISO) as well as Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), which links us to the World Trade Organisation.
Most of these agencies exist on paper, but are deficient in action. In virtually all of cereals importation, reports show that they are contaminated by aflatoxins but nothing ever happens to stop the importation of such poisoned foodstuffs. The recent expose by NTV on contamination of meats in Kenya brings to focus the attention we must pay on regulation of food in the country. The honeymoon on consuming fresh foods is gone and, in the future, we shall increasingly depend on what the food processors provide. Without a proper regulation, we shall be at the mercy of what the food industry provides.
By its nature, the food industry tries to minimise losses even at the expense of consumers. There are many compelling reasons why we must get it right in ensuring safety and quality management of food supply chains. First are the cost implications in terms of revenue losses from Kenyan food exporters, the disease burden resulting from poor handling of food as well as possible impact on tourism. Secondly, a failed regulatory mechanism will directly impact on the farmers’ pockets and hence exacerbate poverty.
As they, say every problem has an opportunity. In the emergent fourth industrial revolution, there are technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain that can be harnessed to improve on the current status where food has been abused by the greedy, build systems that can streamline supply chains and enable citizens to track and trace food from source to the table.
Several other technologies such as Internet of Things could be used to help the regulators identify foods that are not good for human consumption.
In as much as technology can help reduce food contamination, there is critical need to invest in food supply chains. It will take more than legislation to protect consumers from profit-centric food industry in Kenya.