What you need to know:
- As more diseases are linked to lifestyle and nutrition, people are beginning to grow more conscious of their food.
- Several other local studies have found that fruits and leafy vegetables contain high levels of pesticide residue and heavy metals.
- Globally, a World Health Organization study found that contaminated food was the cause of 600 million illnesses in 2010.
The chicken served at some popular fast food cafes in Nairobi could be laced with a toxic cocktail of bacteria and in some cases, chemicals that could cause cancer.
Tests commissioned by the Nation show that the ready-to-eat chicken is contaminated with bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, enterobacteriaceae and coliforms.
It also tested positive for sodium metabisulphite, a preservative that scientists have said causes cancer if consumed in large amounts.
While proper cooking and handling should eliminate most of these bacteria, these cases point to shocking laxity in public health standards at the sampled fast food cafes.
“The presence of these bacteria points a direct finger to bad cooking and hygiene practices, because they indicate that the meat has been in contact with fecal matter.
"The person handling this food is either not cooking it properly or is not washing hands after visiting the toilet,” Dr Joseph Wahome, a toxicologist at Meru Level Five Hospital, said.
He added that heat, however, has no effect on the sodium metabisulphite, which should not be present at all in fresh food.
“Sodium metabisulphite should only be in processed food and in small quantities. Its presence in fresh meat shows that suppliers are using it to prolong shelf life, without knowing the correct quantities to apply.
"This could be particularly dangerous for those allergic to sulphur as it could give them skin eruptions or send them into anaphylactic shock,” he said.
Raw chicken from a supermarket was also found to be contaminated with the same bacteria.
Dr Wahome said that chicken should be washed before cooking to reduce bacterial contamination, although he warned that washing had limited effect on chemical contaminants.
“There have been incidents of meat, especially beef, being preserved with formalin, the chemical used to preserve bodies in the mortuary.
"Washing would not eliminate this or the sodium metabisulphite as the chemical usually penetrates into the very fibre of the meat.
"Be wary of butcheries that seem to be completely free of houseflies since flies avoid meat that has been chemically preserved with formalin,” he said.
Milk, fruits and vegetables are also compromised, leaving Kenyans with limited options for safe foods and contributing to a growing disease-burden that continues to clog health facilities and derail economic development.
A health craze has taken over the world by storm. As more diseases are linked to lifestyle and nutrition, people are beginning to grow more conscious of their food.
They have become more choosy eaters, piling their plates with more vegetables and fruits and opting for white meat instead of red.
Concerns are however rising about the safety of these apparently healthy foods and whether consumers are really caring for their health or accumulating toxic substances that could wreak havoc on their bodies.
Investigations by the Nation show that your morning smoothie made of spinach, mango, banana and yoghurt is unsafe and could be slowly poisoning you.
The fresh leafy spinach you bought from the kiosk is laden with harmful bacteria, the milk has raised concerns from the Kenya Dairy Board whose tests show that it is toxic with bacteria and the mangoes and bananas have been artificially ripened using calcium carbide, a chemical notorious for depriving the neurological system of oxygen leading to disorders as serious as seizures.
The spinach tested by the laboratory commissioned by this newspaper was found to contain high levels of coliforms and enterobacteriaceae.
In addition, several other local studies have found that fruits and leafy vegetables contain high levels of pesticide residue and heavy metals, because of unscrupulous farming practices such as using contaminated water and failing to wait out the requisite period of time between spraying and harvesting.
And in January this year, the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) raised the alarm about a possible aflatoxin outbreak in parts of the country later this year.
“All these contaminants are extremely dangerous to the human body. They could lead to gastroenteritis, dysentery, typhoid, blood infections and in more serious cases, could compromise the liver and the kidney,” Dr Wahome said.
Kenya has no definitive statistics on food-borne illnesses since the government’s focus in recent years has tended to dwell on non-communicable diseases, malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Globally, a World Health Organization study found that contaminated food was the cause of 600 million illnesses in 2010.
Out of these, 420,000 cases resulted in death.
The study also found that food-borne illnesses were disproportionately more common in developing countries, noting that “people in developing countries often have difficulty coping with food-borne disease”.
For many living at or below the poverty line, food-borne illness perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
The symptoms of food-borne diseases range from mild and self-limiting (nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea) to debilitating and life-threatening (such as kidney and liver failure, brain and neural disorders, paralysis and potentially cancers), leading to long periods of absenteeism and premature death.
And according to statistics from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, children are especially vulnerable.
Diarrhoeal diseases are the number one killer among children aged five years and below and the second deadliest killer among all other age groups.
It has long been suspected that a good quantity of vegetables eaten in Nairobi are grown with untreated sewage water.
Just a kilometre off the Njiru-Ruai road in Kasarani Constituency in Nairobi, the Nation found one such farm.
It is a large piece of land, divided into several lots. On some of them, maize grows strong and healthy, the stems thick as an adult’s wrist and the leaves a deep lovely green that stands out even among the generally lush vegetation in the surrounding area.
On many more lots, it is planting season for sukuma wiki, spinach, managu and other leafy greens, their small but succulent leaves shooting out of the soil and reaching for the sun, already thriving, showing promise.
Criss-crossing the lots like large grey snakes are plastic pipes, delivering much needed water to the crops.
Some lie in trenches a few inches beneath the soil but most are on the surface, where the farmers pick them up, attach a nozzle and use it to send sprays of the life-giving fluid to quench the soil.
And there lies the problem and the reason why the crops are so lush.
The water used to grow them comes from the slurry that is the Nairobi River, a murky grey, so full of sewage that its repugnant smell of human excrement hits you before you see the actual river.
That smell hangs subtly in the air over the farm lots and if you stay around long enough, you forget that it’s there. It certainly does not seem to bother the farmers.
Hardly a kilometre up the river from where these farm lots lie is what appears to be a dumping point for sewage exhauster trucks.
As we drove over a bridge between Mwiki and Njiru shopping centres, we saw several honey sucker trucks dumping their loads into the river, just in case one were under any illusions regarding the source of the contamination.
“While food safety and quality control are both national and county issues, concern about public health is particularly acute in urban areas.
"Agricultural production in urban and peri-urban areas, often of nutrient rich vegetables, typically occurs along riversides using contaminated water, thereby discouraging urban consumers from diversifying their diets.
"This is exacerbated by informal roadside markets, further contaminating food with pollution, lead and dust.
"Guidelines are not provided or taught and cooked street foods are unregulated and risk contamination,” a 2015 food safety study by Dr Simon Ndiritu, the head of agribusiness at Strathmore Business School, said.
Food, as it moves along the value chain, is exposed to contaminants that are ultimately harmful to human beings.
The fertilisers used during planting and weeding, the pesticides, the preservatives after harvesting, the bacteria that is introduced during retailing, all have the capacity to end up in our bodies and make us sick.
At Muthurwa market, traders display their wares on the ground beside dirty streams of water.
Should a fruit or vegetable roll away from the pile into the water, it is picked up and put right back, with no thought whatsoever to what contaminants might be introduced to the rest of the produce.
You don’t waste what you can save. It is no surprise that the green vegetables sourced from this area ended up testing highly for coliforms and enterobacteriaceae.
Supermarkets seem to take a level of care for how they source food products, as evidenced by the lower levels of contaminants in their samples in comparison with those sold in open air markets.
Dr Ndiritu found during his research that low income people are more vulnerable to unsafe food as they cannot afford to buy from safer outlets such as supermarkets or licensed grocers.
“The people interviewed for my study all said that they buy from open-air vendors and they don’t particularly care where the food comes from as long as it looks healthy and is cheap. This puts them at most risk of food-borne illnesses,” he said.
Best practices in other countries protect citizens by imposing a battery of regulations and legislations on food, which are strictly implemented and enforced, ensuring that the food that ends up on people’s plates is safe.
The export market has shown that Kenya has great capacity for standardising food sourcing, packaging and marketing.
In order to penetrate the export market with its stringent rules and regulations about food, Kenya has had to toe the line.
In 2015, a national traceability system was established that could trace food from farm to fork, providing the consumer with information about where the crops were grown, how they were handled and what the production process was.
Export standards such as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) have been adopted in the country through Kenya-GAP and although the farmers who have conformed to these regulations report better yields and healthier crops, they also complain that adhering to the standards is expensive.
“Virtually every farmer complained of the very high standards of compliance and the majority felt that these costs were not balanced by an increase in price for compliant produce,” Dr Ndiritu in his study noted.
But although Kenya has put robust measures in place to enable its products to compete in the international market, similar consumer protection measures are lacking in the local context.
In Kenya, food safety regulations are scattered over several government agencies, creating a bizarre situation where it is difficult to pin point who is fully responsible for the safety of food that Kenyans eat.
This has led to the creation of the National Food Safety Coordination Committee (NFSCC), which was established to coordinate interagency efforts and to attempt to streamline the implementation of 22 food safety and quality legislations that have been passed through various Acts of Parliament over the years.
Although the NFSCC was a step forward, Kenya operates without a comprehensive food safety and nutrition policy, a document that has been introduced in Parliament several times without ever seeing the light of day.
Successive ministers of health, dating back to when Charity Ngilu held the office (from 2003 to 2007) have tried to have it passed into law with no success.
Currently, the Department of Public Health under the Ministry of Health acts as the secretariat to the NFSCC, effectively making it responsible for the coordination of food safety efforts in the country.
The man in charge of this department is Dr Kepha Ombacho.
He says the functions of his office have been derailed by the devolved system, saying that the responsibility of implementing food safety directives rests with the counties who have been known to drag their feet when urgent attention is required.
An example is how the cholera crisis was handled last year.
“Despite our recommendations to treat the matter as urgent, counties do not prioritize food safety.
"In the case of cholera, we had to go to the intergovernmental council to chart a way forward with the governors. Navigating the county versus national government bureaucracy takes too much time which could be better spent saving lives,” Dr Ombacho said.
According to him, food safety can only be achieved by a process of continuous vigilance.
He is however at pains to explain how well “vigilance” has worked, if at all and is reluctant to be drawn into a discussion about what successes or failures there have been in achieving food safety in the country.
“It is difficult to answer the question about whether the food we consume is safe because we know that there are traders who engage in unscrupulous business practices that leads to contamination of food in the market.
"For instance, while the regulated milk in supermarkets could be up to standard and be considered safe, there are informal traders who sell milk out of dispensers whose safety we cannot vouch for,” he said.
But it is in the informal trade where the crux of the matter is and perhaps where most vigilance and government intervention should be employed.
According to a 2014 brief by International Livestock Research Institute, “More than 80 per cent of the meat, milk, eggs and fish produced in developing countries is sold in traditional, domestic markets, lacking modern infrastructure and escaping effective food safety regulation and inspection”.
The same statistic, or higher, could reasonably be expected to apply to fresh crop produce.
The fact is most Kenyans buy their food from informal, unlicensed and untaxed vendors, who fall through the gaps of whatever food safety regulations that the government has attempted to enforce.
And as these vendors continue to sell food whose quality and safety has been compromised, usually to low-income Kenyans who cannot afford to buy from more established and regulated players such as supermarkets, food safety begins to look a lot like just one more way in which poor people are neglected by a government that is supposed to protect them.
Dr Ombacho says that his department has launched several circulars that highlight cases of food contamination and adds that a lot of work has been done on the ground to teach the public about good food practices.
These campaigns involve not only those in the food value chain but the general public who are the consumers of this food.
“Food safety is a shared responsibility. We can enact policy and raise awareness, but the public should report suspect food. We would like consumers to observe hygiene and proper cooking,” he said.
That is well and good. A consumer most certainly should be responsible for washing a mango before they eat it.
But should it also be the consumer’s responsibility to ensure that the mango was not ripened using calcium carbide?