On the cooking oil and the Kenya Bureau of Standards saga, I have a special plea to the government; We should not compromise what goes into our mouths at all costs. The other day, Kebs told us categorically that they had subjected several consignments of edible oil imported under the state-subsidised programme to test and found the product to be unfit for human consumption.
The ink has not dried on that announcement and our standards body backtracks and says that cargo is safe. Total confusion. Clearly, consumer protection does not rank high as a priority in this land. Pitiable because at stake, is stuff we swallow.
If we were living in a more civilised society, the government would have followed with thorough investigations and –thereafter, a comprehensive public statement on this very serious matter. When you are dealing with public health issues, clear messaging is imperative.
Yes, we are a corrupt society. But the last thing we should be prepared to do is to allow corrupt elites and profiteers to toy around with the lives and health of our people by selling them sub-standard edible oils.
Once doubts emerged on the safety of the imported cooking oil, our regulators should have followed with an extensive public information campaign warning citizens about specific brands to avoid.
The truth of the matter is that imported brands said to be substandard are on supermarket shelves. How can the consumer identify them? Shouldn’t we- at the very least - be insisting that the brands from Indonesia be made to bear stickers saying ‘deficient in Vitamin A’. And if Vitamin A- as Kebs is belatedly saying- is not a health parameter, why does the standards body test imported edible oils against this parameter in the first place?
Public consumer education and clarity on standards and safety on imported edible oils is critical right now because of the recent entry of new players and products in this space. For instance, a group of Indonesian merchants have recently sold thousands of edible oil vending machines- the so-called mama pima machines- in the market.
It has also been reported that the Indonesians are setting up facilities at the Dongo Kundu Special Economic Zones area for filling 20-litre Jerri cans with palm oil from their country. Promoters of the facility at Dongo Kundu have been touting it as a massive complex with the capacity to fill – 1-ton mama pima machines with palm oil.
Because of the Dongo Kundu’s status as an EPZ, the arrangement is that palm oil will be coming in from Indonesia in bulk- duty-free and VAT-free
This edible oil saga has raised several public policy questions. First, what is the integrity of the laboratories at the Kebs? Laboratory tests change at the whims and interests of individuals.
We still remember the case of the controversial fertiliser imports from Morroco where tests that were initially conducted alleged that it was laced with mercury.
The controversial fertiliser consignment was tested multiple times by a number of labs and results kept changing. Yet theory teaches us that well done laboratory tests should reflect both ‘reproducibility’ and ‘repeatability’- meaning that the results should be the same even under different conditions of testing.
The biggest irony of the case was that at the end of the day, the consignment of fertiliser from Morrocco was released to the market. Even more ironical- despite the fact that it was released to the market after independent tests found it to be free of mercury, former top executives of Kebs who were charged are still in court facing charges for releasing mercury-laced fertiliser into the market.
The second public policy question that arises from this saga is the independence of regulatory authorities that deal with public health and safety
Kebs has emerged as a playground where different factions of the political elite test their influence and mettle. Whichever way you look at it, the imported cooking oil programme was a fat scandal.
The writer is a former managing editor of The East African.