Chinese fish found with 427 times recommended amount of lead

The consignment of Chinese fish is transported by ship for over 8,000 km, a journey that takes days. Once it lands at the port of Mombasa, it is trucked for another 1,000 km before it lands in depots in Kisumu.

Despite the long distance, the fish from China arrives at a retail price of Sh230 a kilo. This is less than half of the Sh500 that local fishmongers ask for.

It is easy to know why Kenya made a quick about-turn on the ban on Chinese fish. Aside from protests by the Chinese embassy, which termed the temporary ban a “trade war”, Kenya cannot compete with the Asian nation on price and scale. The deficit is also widening with the depletion of fish from Lake Victoria. Concerns on the safety of fish imported from China were first raised in early 2019.

At the time, most of the Chinese fish in Kenya was repackaged together with stocks from Lake Victoria after landing in Nairobi to fool consumers that it had all been sourced locally.

No danger

A Nation investigation then revealed that the fish had traces of mercury, lead, arsenic and copper. When we shared our findings with the Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KEBS), the agency whose job it is to set safety standards, denied that the fish imports posed any danger to human health.

“All imports to Kenya are required to be tested in the country of origin and if they meet the specifications in the standards, they are issued with a certificate of conformity. Upon arrival in Kenya, the imports are subjected to destination inspection,” Kebs said at the time.

A year later, the Nation went back and sampled even bigger numbers of the fish, this time from Kisumu, and the results were shocking.

As part of the ''Rotting from the Deep'' investigative series, we bought a 10-kg box of Tilapia fish freshly shipped from China. The fish, after its arrival in Kenya, is repackaged in white boxes emblazoned with “fresh and delicious” and “gutted head on and quick-frozen” on the sides.

They have a two-year shelf life. We picked the 300-400g size, which is preferred by most people running small-sized restaurants.

Lab test

The other sizes available are packed in boxes weighing 100-200g, 200-300g, 400-600g, 600-800g with the largest being 800 grammes and above. We took the box to the lab at the University of Nairobi for testing. The results revealed that cheap is, indeed, expensive. The fish samples had seven dangerous pesticides among them phosalone, which was detected at 0.07 parts per million (ppm). This is seven times more than the maximum allowable limit (MAL) of 0.01 ppm.

Other pesticides detected in the fish from China include tolyfluanid (0.022 ppm), flutonail (0.022ppm), deltamethrin (0.026ppm), acrinathrin (0.005ppm), pretilachlor (0.005) and tebufenpyrad at 0.001ppm.

These classes of pesticides can cause cancer, mouth ulceration, dysphagia and abdominal pain, among other diseases, if ingested. However, this is not all that Kenyans should worry about.

High level

Lead in fish from China was found at 42.7 ppm. This is 427 times the FAO/WHO recommended level of 0.1ppm.

“The Chinese fish obtained in Kisumu town had lead (Pb) at levels far above the CODEX recommended residue levels of 0.1ppm,” a report prepared by the scientists from the University of Nairobi said.

The same fish samples had relatively high levels of zinc (Zn) though below the CODEX MAL of 30ppm. Excess Zinc causes stomach flu or what is known as gastroenteritis. This is a common condition that causes diarrhoea and vomiting.

Other heavy metals detected were iron, copper and manganese, but these were found to be at safe levels. Lead causes decreased mental ability, damages the nervous system and impedes physical development in children. In adults, it causes high blood pressure, kidney damage and reduced fertility.

Workers carry tilapia sourced from China at a fish depot in Kisumu. The fish is often contaminated with pollutants. JEFF ANGOTE | NATION

Lead is a dangerous poison and it can cause cancer if ingested in excess. Lead poisoning can also cause anaemia, general body weakness, kidney and brain damage. It can also cause immediate death in excessive quantities. However, lead is feared as a poison because it can damage almost every body organ from the heart, bones, kidneys, teeth, intestines as well as the reproductive, nervous and immune systems. 

Prof James Mbaria, the lead researcher in the project, said the fish was not fit for human consumption given its contamination levels. This means agencies involved in testing of the fish samples such as Kebs must have failed to carry out effective tests before allowing such fish to be sold in the market.

The alternative is uglier. It means that importers presented clean fish for testing to get the import certificates and then lowered their standards along the way. Either way, someone is sleeping on the job.

Kenya’s appetite for Chinese products has been growing by double digits in the past decade.

Competitive prices

From mobile phones to toothpicks, radios, television sets, tyres and a wide range of household items, Kenyan traders continue to find value from the Asian nation due to its competitive prices and easier route to market.

Over the past five years, total imports from China have grown by 50 per cent to hit Sh370 billion at the end of 2018, up from Sh248 billion in 2014. Fish is now one of the most important food imports from the Asian nation. This has seen China move from a country that only sold manufactured goods to Kenya to being a part of the daily menu in many homes across the country as demand for the product stands at three times the local supply.

Available data shows fish imports crossed the Sh2 billion mark in 2017, and this figure has been doubling every year.

Initially, fish from China was restricted to Gikomba market, where it was redistributed to restaurants in Nairobi and its environs. But the shortage in other parts of the country, especially Kisumu due to depleted stocks, saw the fish end up in western Kenya too.

Some resistance

At first, there was some resistance and traders were hesitant to reveal to their customers where the fish came from.

Vendors of locally sourced fish would also fight these imports.

Today, fish from China can easily be found in a number of towns including Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisii, Bungoma, Kakamega and Kitale. There is no hiding any more.

Apparently, it is better to have some fish than have none at all.

It is even freely sold at beachfront hotels in Kisumu and as far as Marenga at Port Victoria in Busia County.

Buy boxes

To be able to distribute to the western Kenya towns, fish import companies have set up shop in Kisumu from where middlemen buy boxes of frozen fish and are able to send them in the form of parcels to almost every town in the region.

Last year’s budget policy statement put Kenya’s total local fish production at 180,000 tonnes a year, against a demand of about 500,000 tonnes. The situation is not helped by the decline in quantities of fish from Lake Victoria.

Over the past five years, fish quantities harvested from Lake Victoria have declined by 23 per cent from 128,708 tonnes in 2014 to 98,150 tonnes by the end of 2018, according to data from the economic survey.

This has seen the value of local fresh-water fish drop from Sh20.9 billion to 19.4 billion over the period.

This means that fish from China is not going anywhere any time soon.