Aflatoxin in Kenya: Enforcement of Food Safety Standards

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published on 11 November 2020 | Reading time approx. 4 minutes
 

Kenya has from time to time been grappling with aflatoxin contamination in food. Despite there being strict laws and standards surrounding the sale of contaminated products, several still make it into shops and to consumers with illnesses and deaths being reported in humans and animals alike. Kenya has seen a spike in the incidence of cancer. Many attribute it to not only lifestyle changes but to consumption of food-borne contaminants such as aflatoxin.

 
Given the fatal carcinogenic nature of aflatoxins, Kenyans are rightly concerned about how such products make it into the market in the first place. In this article we highlight some of the enforcement measures surrounding aflatoxin contaminated food.


  

  

Legal framework for food safety and particularly for residues and contaminants

The main laws surrounding food safety in Kenya are the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act (FDSCA) and the Standards Act (SA).

 
The provisions of the FDSCA relating to human food safety are worded in general language and therefore have wide effect.

 
The FDSCA makes it an offence for a person to sell any food that, amongst other things, has “in or upon it any poisonous or harmful substance” or that “is unwholesome or unfit for human consumption”. Further it makes it an offence for a person to label, package, sell or advertise food that does not comply with a prescribed standard as food that complies with that standard.

 
The accepted food standards are however developed under the SA. The purpose of the SA is to provide for the standardisation of the specification of commodities, and establish also codes of practice. The SA also sets up the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) whose mandate is to ensure that all commodities whether locally manufactured or imported comply with the provisions of the law dealing with standards of quality or description.

 
The KEBS has developed standards that provide for the maximum amount of aflatoxin that is permissible in foods. Kenya’s standards set the maximum permissible aflatoxin levels at ten parts per bio. for maize (a staple food in Kenya) and 15 parts per bio. for peanut butter, some common foods that Kenyans eat.

 

Excessive aflatoxin levels in food and related enforcement measures

KEBS has taken some high profile measures at enforcing these standards. In November 2019, KEBS banned the sale of the popular locally manufactured peanut butter products from household brands. This forced retailers to quickly drop these products from their shelves.

 
It had been the first time that KEBS had taken such an action in relation to peanut butter products and it therefore caused widespread panic amongst consumers. Samples of one of the brands showed aflatoxin levels as high as 45.25 parts per bio. Parents across the country were particularly concerned as peanut butter is used as a safe source of protein and other vital nutrients for growing children.

 
Maize meal has often been under the spotlight for unsafe aflatoxin levels. Several bans have been issued in the past one year for the sale of various maize flour brands. Kenyans across the country have as a staple food a maize meal cake known as “ugali”.

 
The discovery that common household foods have dangerous levels of the cancer causing aflatoxin has caused much public alarm. The Kenyan media has rightly fed into this and published several exposes showing how these products get into the market and the harm they are causing. Most recently in July 2020, local media reported several dog owners and breeders across the country having their dogs die from aflatoxicosis after consuming contaminated pet food.

 
The enforcement is primarily carried out through administrative actions as outlined above. However it is only most effective when targeted at foods marketed through large scale and formal marketing channels. Even then there has been suspicion over the possible corruption of enforcement authorities by the powerful and wealthy business interests in the food sector.

 
In 2011, Kenya experienced a scandal of five mio. bags of maize imported from the USA being released into the market despite the government knowing that it had high aflatoxin levels and was unfit for human consumption. The then managing director of KEBS, the late Kioko Mang’eli, when appearing before a parliamentary committee conducting an enquiry on the matter, stated that KEBS was denied the opportunity to inspect the maize. He forebodingly warned that he was certain that in ten to 15 years he expected there to be a high incidence of cancers based on the consumption of this maize.

 
A further challenge is that a large portion of the population gets their food from small scale farmers and millers who may not have the capacity to carry out the required practices to prevent the development of the molds that produce the aflatoxins or to even  afford the equipment to test for the same. Such small scale farmers and millers due to their lack of financial muscle may also feel that they can ill afford to dispose of grain that they even suspect of being contaminated and they may therefore still release it into the market.

 
Kenyans are therefore fully reliant on KEBS and other enforcement agencies to keep their foods safe despite suspicion of their lack of fidelity to the law. Unfortunately due to the difficulty in attributing harm caused by aflatoxin to any specific meal or batch of products one may have consumed due to the long duration it may take for symptoms to manifest; it is rare if not unheard of for persons suffering the harmful effects to institute direct civil suits against food processors.

 

Conclusion

Due to the efforts of the media, there is a higher level of public awareness of the risks of consuming foods contaminated with aflatoxin. Kenyans with the direct access they have to their leaders through social media are demanding greater accountability of public bodies such as KEBS in the enforcement of food safety standards. KEBS and other enforcement agencies are also independently improving their governance structures and it has been encouraging to see them aggressively ban products from the market in the past year at a high cost to the food processors. We hope to see class action suits against unscrupulous food processors which can result in direct compensation payments to all those affected. Under the fear of the high financial burden associated with non-compliance, we should see improvement in the sector.

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Mbatia Mwasaria

+254 702 4632 72

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Penninah Munyaka

Associate Partner

+254 722 4808 25

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