The never-ending story of Africa’s hunger tragedy: where lies food safety?

A January 9,2009 story in the local press reports that Kenya shilling 83million (equivalent 8 million US dollars) worth of maize was ordered destroyed by a local court. The maize totalling about 32,000  90kg bags was tested and found positive for unacceptable levels of aflatoxin; the maize was unfit for human consumption.The destruction of the maize comes at a time when rains have failed and nearly 10 million Kenyans in a population of 36 million face starvation.There is a major shortage of maize, the main staple in the country. The story in the newspaper was small, mixed up with other corruption stories but the headline was big.The National Cereals and Produce Board of Kenya (NCPB), supposedly the gate keeper of Kenya’s food grain systems had to wait to be taken to court before they could decide what to do with grain which clearly was now poison to Kenyans.

The worry for many Kenyans should be: If it has to take one government agency to report another, what more is being hidden from Kenyans regarding the quality of their marketed food? After the court ruling that the maize should be burnt, NCPB pleaded to have the maize sold to a glue making company to get funds to cover storage  and handling costs.This clearly is very worrying,  that a government agency whose responsibility includes ensuring a safe maize supply for Kenyans is more concerned with the storage costs than with their own failure and inability to safeguard Kenyans’ health.The other question is: What guarantee is there that other stored maize is not contaminated? In the same province ( Eastern) where Siakago is people have died before from aflatoxin poisoning after consuming contaminated maize. At the time, about a year ago, and more times before there was big publicity about the lethal contamination, and deaths being blamed on the quality of maize with some terming it as GM ( genetically modified) maize. As it is now there is little information as to the type of maize and the strain of aflatoxin and the actual levels of contamination.

The Kenyan story surely cannot be unique. The food systems in Africa are in dire need of serious attention. Facilities and personnel to monitor  and maintain a safe food supply are in short supply.

Not much investment has been put in this area, unfortunately.As it is now, we need to preserve as much food as possible. It just does not make sense to call for increased food productivity, or for food aid when capacity to store what is given or harvested is not adequate.Who should be trusted with a country’s food safely?What systems need to be put in place to ensure what people eat is safe and protected from metal, bacterial and fungal poisoning?A country which knows what it is doing will invest in the training of personnel in the area of food safety and allied fields.The kind of report I have just alluded to in the case of Kenya gives the country a very bad image in interntional trade. Food is the most traded commodity internationally and can give producing countries good foreign exchange income, but only if the commodities do not get rejected out of safety concerns by recipient countries.Many developing countries lack the human resource capacity to be able to compete in international food trade.As such, whatever capacity exists gets focused on trying to meet recipient country standards requirements.The result is that internal food systems are highly threatened by exposure to contaminating forces and thus food associated morbidity and mortality rise rapidly.

Africa still has a chance to undertake effective agriculture: crop, livestock and aquaculture to enhance not only internal food security but to produce enough to trade internationally.This, however, will not happen if Africa’s food production systems are not safeguarded against contamination.Safeguard facilities require policy prioritization and budgetary investment.

I am well known for the quote: Food is the first medicine. Likewise, Food can be poison.

By Ruth Oniang'o,
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND

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