Food Safety for All by All

Food Safety for All by All

Reflecting on World Food Safety Day 2020's theme "Food safety, everybody's business", Mercy Lungaho explains its importance within Kenyan food systems.

As a food scientist and human nutritionist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, I strongly believe that in these precarious times of COVID-19, we have to focus on improving our food system so that women, and especially pregnant women, are not disproportionately affected by food-borne mutagens and carcinogens throughout their term.

We need equal access to a healthy and productive life for a stronger and more productive economy. However, is it possible in Kenya? Looking at my country and the farming households I serve in the course of my work, I want the priorities of African women to become development priorities. On World Food Safety Day, I wish for two things: a safe food system free from aflatoxin, and a food system that is traceable and fully transparent.

Food safety concerns in Kenya

Late last year, the #WhiteAlert exposé by NTV Investigations Desk on aflatoxin contamination of maize products caused a wave of panic and concern in Kenya. A day after, the Kenya Bureau of Standards suspended licenses of five maize millers over the sale of aflatoxin-contaminated flour. One may argue that both men and women were exposed to this unsafe product. If so, why is food safety primarily a woman’s issue?

Studies have shown that aflatoxins adversely affect pregnant and breastfeeding women. A study from Uganda suggests an association between maternal aflatoxin exposure during pregnancy and adverse birth outcomes, particularly lower birth weight and smaller head circumference.  Although further research is warranted, another study from Zambia indicated that exposure to aflatoxin could lead to an increase in serum aflatoxin concentrations increasing the risk for stunted growth. In fact, aflatoxin is known to cross into the placenta and could influence genomic programming, fetal growth and development, resulting in long‐term health effects for children.

The Constitution of Kenya provides the overall legal framework in Kenya. The Constitution further obligates the State and every State organ to observe, respect, protect, promote, and fulfill the rights in the Constitution, and to take "Legislative, policy and other measures, including the setting of standards to achieve the progressive realization of the rights guaranteed in Article 43." State organs and public officers have a constitutional obligation to address the needs of vulnerable groups in society. They also adapt the provisions of any relevant international treaty and convention that Kenya has ratified. The State has a constitutional obligation under Article 46 of the Constitution to protect consumer rights, including the protection of health, safety, and economic interests. Nevertheless, food safety and food fraud remain important challenges in Kenya for several reasons. 

Addressing challenges for food safety

Firstly, the development of relevant and enforceable food laws and regulations is an integral component of a modern food control system. Kenya no doubt has sufficient food laws. The question however remains why these laws are not adequately enforced. Lack of formalized networking between the institutions that deal with food safety in the country is the second reason. Finally, there is the challenge of poor coordination and administration of food control management, specifically, the inability of the country’s food control management system to detect potential risks, and emergency response to advise on when to intervene to mitigate potential and actual risks.

To address these key challenges in a sustainable manner requires that we first implement systemic changes. We need to assess the level of preparedness and readiness of the food system actors in Kenya to enforce food laws and standards, thereby mainstreaming food safety into the food system at the national, county, and sub-county levels and domains such as policy, institutions and infrastructure, finance and human resource. Given the complexity of the food system, stakeholders cannot go it alone.

Advocating for a safer future

The world is now a global village with different scenarios mirrored around the world. Consequently, we need to develop public-private partnerships at both national and county levels to foster sector-wide collaborations and synergies that mainstream food safety into our food system. Last but not least, we must implement a new framework of responsibilities that aligns with our devolved governance system that identifies competent authorities at either national or county level, articulates their mandates and scope of responsibility in executing their roles hence mainstreaming food safety into our food system.

Women need everyone to spearhead and champion the right of women to have healthy pregnancies. For that, we need safe food that comes from a traceable and transparent food system. Everybody must advocate for food safety. Together, we can ensure food safety, by all for all.