By Fredrick Nzwili *
World Food Safety Day, observed 7 June, draws attention and mobilizes action to prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks and improve human health. The theme for this year is “Safer Food, Better Health.”
Maize is Kenya’s staple food, but the toxin is threatening the consumption of grain crops. Yet, with severe food shortages gripping the eastern Africa region, what to eat in a day comes first for the people, according to the clerics.
“We only speak about food safety in the light of aflatoxin. This is what the people have seen and know,” said Rev. Joseph Njakai, an Anglican priest in the Mount Kenya West Diocese. “Food Safety is also a subject in food preservation, including the chemicals and fertilizers used in preservation and to grow the food.”
According to International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, at least 157 people died in Kenya in 2020 after consuming food with poisonous levels of aflatoxin.
In Kenya, the problem came first to the fore in 2004, when 26 people died in Makueni County in the southeastern parts of the country. The victims of the poisoning had complained of severe abdominal pains, were vomiting, and suffered convulsions before death.
Justus Lavi Mwololo, national general secretary of Kenya Small Scale Farmers’ Forum said aflatoxin in maize is challenging farmers have faced for a long time. The entry point, according to the farmers’ leader, is in the storage of maize and occurs when a harvest is stored in surfaces or rooms that are damp.
“The problem is quite serious. My mother knew about it. I first heard it from her many years ago. The solution is in properly drying the maize and the selection of the seed. Fully developed traditional seeds resist the toxins. Grains from hybrid seeds, which dry with a lot difficulties are often attacked,” said Mwololo.
The United Nations established World Safety Day in 2018. The day—marked on June 7—draws attention and inspires action to prevent, detect and manage foodborne diseases.
“There is no food security without food safety. Will it meet the nutritional needs and help adults live an active and healthy life and children to grow and develop?” says one of the messages of the celebration.
According to Nicta Lubaale, general secretary of the Organization of African Instituted Churches, food safety is for all, but contamination affects those who have few choices.
“I don’t think the consumers who have little resources have the ability to check. It is a whole question of survival, so that is the danger. When there is scarcity, the exposure is more,” said Lubaale.
“When there is drought, food security comes first, the safety later. Safety is not an issue in such times,” added Njakai.
Recently, according to the priest, discussions around what people consume and its safety are occurring among the congregations following increased cases of cancer. In his region, theories have spread that the trigger is the food they eat.
“Many believe the chemicals sprayed on food crops and fertilizers being used are causing the diseases,” said the priest.
At the same, Mwololo reminds that it is one thing to produce food and it’s another to produce safe food for the people.
“Food safety has been compromised. It is nobody’s business. If one can twist the rules and make quick money, then he or she is champion,” he regrets. “Cereals and vegetables are being raced with high assiduous chemicals and no one is in control.”
* Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.