Label fish imports to restore consumer confidence

Fishermen offloading their catch
Fishermen offloading their catch. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Kenya imports an incredible 22,000 tonnes of Chinese fish every year. The fish, mainly tilapia, is then cheekily mixed with local harvests, and sold to unsuspecting consumers. What a fishy enterprise this is!

Indeed, no retailer admits their stocks are Chinese fish, and this is for a reason. Fish from China is suspect.

That is why the State has to establish robust traceability to differentiate the fish for consumers. Coding and labelling of fish, and monitoring its movement from pond to plate, will save most Kenyans from falling into the trap of buying what can be toxic.

Last year, The East African newspaper commissioned lab tests on tilapia from China. Fish from China was found to be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and copper, residues that were way above acceptable thresholds.

But this should not come as a surprise. In 2008, an infant formula in China was found laced with melamine. It caused deaths while 54,000 others were hospitalised. The scandal prompted 11 countries to terminate dairy imports from China.


Still, it would be naïve to imagine that Kenya can ban fish imports. In any case, authorities argue we have a deficit. Further, Kenya lacks the muscle to indulge in stringent protectionist policies for such a trade war can leave us with a bloody nose.

But we cannot subject everyone to dangerous food in the name of market demands. In streamlined markets, and with an increasingly discerning consumer, product differentiation is critical.

We need fish labelled ‘Tilapia from China’ or ‘Tilapia from Lake Victoria’.... Traders too must declare the origin of the fish. A strict traceability regime will restore consumer confidence. It will also boost farmers and fishermen keen on ethical production.

And the labelling for traceability is not a new idea. All the countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have established vibrant mechanisms that ensure only sound fish enters their territories. Fishmongers are under obligation to declare origins.

In some instances, well established and properly run farms take pride in their produce that they make sure it is clearly labelled. We need such.

This means that consumers can have choices. Those who are comfortable with the imports can do so. In any case, fish from China is cheaper. The rest will also choose what to consume, notwithstanding the high price.

But mixing the fish is unethical and immoral.

But the traceability should not be limited just to Chinese imports. Even local fish production doesn't necessarily pass the integrity test. Tilapia from fishponds is susceptible to contamination, too. Pesticides, fertilisers or industrial effluent easily twist their way into the ponds and ultimately to the plate.

Sadly, even with improved knowledge on traceability, we still consume foods as if they come from the same ethical sources. This is absurd.

It’s also criminal negligence on the part of authorities.

Indeed, sound regulatory regimes are critical to ensure the safety of citizenry. Inspection of source, codification and strict surveillance of the fish value chain is the bare minimum we expect if the integrity of our health is paramount.

Apart from the fish killing us softly, the imports will bog down the local fish industry. China, it’s important to know, has established mega fish farming of industrial scales. It’s the source of about 70 percent of global fish needs.

The trouble is China knows its markets. While exports to the USA, European Union and other strict jurisdictions strive to meet the best quality standards, those for Africa are hopeless. We have seen this in electronic products.

The tilapia in your plate is no different. Most likely it comes from provinces notorious for contaminated sea farms.

Enjoying economies of scale, China will easily crash our local producers. That will be a savage ironic disaster for a country that recently hosted a Blue Economy conference.

But mitigation lies in robust quality regulation and consumer education. An informed consumer is an empowered one.

Food should be ethically and sustainably produced. Therefore, information about the source, and the entire value chain should be made available to the consumer.

Eric Wamanji, Public Relations and communication adviser