Food Safety: A call to action now!

The world’s population is tremendously rising, and so is the demand for food to feed the masses. It’s expected that the human population will more than double by 2050, creating an urgent need for Agricultural productivity to be increased to meet the dietary needs of human beings. The demand for more food, coupled with low adaptive capacity of the food systems has resulted to adoption of production practices that often affect the safety of the foods to meet the nutritional needs of the population. Kenya has not been left behind, with a rapid population growth continuously pushing the demand for food. The result has been an influx of unsafe foods in the Kenyan market, with unscrupulous producers and traders adopting unsafe production and handling techniques driven by cashing in on the rising demand, without due regard to the health and safety of the consumers.

The burden of food safety on an economy can’t be understated. FAO and WHO estimates that there are over 200 diseases spread through food, with 1 in every 10 people falling ill every year from eating contaminated food, resulting to 420,000 deaths. In addition, unsafe foods have been attributed to increase of long-term illnesses, cancer being the most prominent. Over 91 million people in Africa fall ill each year due to food-borne diseases and 137,000 die of the same cause, representing one-third of the global death toll for foodborne diseases.

Improving the safety and accessibility of nutritious food is key to achieving sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG number 2, ‘Zero Hunger’. Studies have shown that food safety issues are among the greatest development challenges facing the world today, and Africa is estimated to carry the largest burden of these development challenges.

In 2019, FAO themed the World Food Day “Our Actions are Our Future: Healthy Diets for a Zero Hunger World”; in recognition of the great burden of unsafe food on global economy, especially the cost associated with health complications linked to the foods. During this day, the Kenyan government retaliated its commitment to securing safe foods for its citizens. Currently, there are over 20 legislations touching on food safety and quality under the various Acts of parliament, with implementation of various aspects vested in different agencies. However, recent studies and media coverage of the food safety situation in Kenya paints a very grim picture of what the Kenyan population have at their plates. From high aflatoxin levels in key components of daily diets such as maize, maize floor, meat and milk; importation of contaminated sugar and rice; to use of harmful chemicals in handling and preserving meat, maize, rice and vegetables; high concentration of toxins in both locally produced and imported fish and; use of highly contaminated water for irrigation in producing vegetables, including the otherwise preferred “healthy” indigenous vegetable, the Kenyan population are at risk of being poisoned to grave, each spoon a time. This paints a picture of a food safety control system that is not working, despite being highly legislated. No wonder food and diet related infections and deaths in Kenya are on a rapid rise.

Food safety is a national concern that should be given the due attention it deserves. It’s high time the government moves beyond having policies and agencies, into coordinated and effective actions towards securing what lands at the plates of the masses. On the other hand, the private sector has a role in delivering safe food, and building the confidence of the consumers in the quality of produce at the various levels of the food chain. Self-regulation by the private sector would provide an easier and more effective regulatory regime to complement the government efforts. At the household and individual level, basic precautions such as producing own supplies where possible, buying foods from reliable suppliers and proper food handling can go a long way in enhancing food safety. It’s either we all invest in safe foods now, or in shouldering the associated health burden later!

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