Last month, Kenyan farmers and consumers were up in arms following a proposed ban on trading in raw milk. The Kenya Dairy Board beat a retreat and suspended the regulations.
That was soon followed by another proposal to ban the use of raw human and animal manure in food crop farming.
This again raised protests. A farmer called to say she understood the banning of human waste but wanted an explanation on including animal manure in the proposed law.
“This is an extortionist government,” one farmer angrily told me.
I told the callers that the proposed laws are meant to improve food safety and protect consumers from infections.
Just when the calls were subsiding, I received an e-mail from a Kericho County resident called Limo.
The farmer said he was initially opposed to the proposed milk laws but after reading my piece in Seeds of Gold titled Yes, food industry needs tough laws, Limo saw the light.
He added that when laws are being developed, the public should be fully made aware of their intentions and benefits to avoid suspicion and resistance.
He, however, loudly wondered what had suddenly become wrong with animal manure.
The proposed law does not seek to ban the use of animal manure in farming.
The idea is to use manure that is treated in a way that is scientifically proved to reduce germs and avoid contaminating food crops. This would in turn safeguard the health of consumers.
It should be noted that the bill proposes a ban on the use of raw human and animal manure because both have been used to grow crops.
It is common knowledge that unscrupulous people in towns use raw sewage to grow vegetables. However, when treated, human waste can be used as manure.
Unfortunately, the acceptability, high cost of treatment and the possibility that other contaminants like heavy metals and viruses may not be eliminated from human waste makes its use unattractive to many a Kenyan farmer.
So why should the government be so concerned about raw animal manure in farming? The answer lies in the transmission of disease-causing germs, called pathogens, from animals to people.
Of particular concern are two bacterial pathogens — Escherichia coli (E. coli) and salmonella.
The two are ubiquitous in the intestines of cattle, sheep, goats and chickens.
One particularly dangerous type of E. coli, medically called O157:H7, is a big threat to food safety and human health.
The bacteria usually live in the intestines of farm animals without causing disease.
However, when they get into people through food or water, they lead to severe infection.
Affected individuals have bloody stool, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, bloody urine and could die in severe cases.
Foods mainly associated with this kind of poisoning are vegetables and fruits like lettuce, spinach and strawberries. They are easily contaminated due to their closeness to the soil.
However, other crops may be a source of infection if the water used on the farm is contaminated.
Raw animal manure from animals hosting the bacteria may easily contaminate food crops with the germs.
Vegetables sustain the pathogens up to the time of consumption because they are fast-growing crops.
In addition, their mode of post-harvest storage and processing favours the multiplication of the germs if precautions are not employed.
To complicate matters, the vegetables and fruits are usually served as raw, salads or in cold meal starters.
Adequately treating animal manure by compositing and other methods kills the germs and minimises the chances of contaminating the crops.
STRUGGLING WITH PREVENTABLE PROBLEMS
Food-borne infections, commonly called food poisoning, are public health risks. Unfortunately, many cases go unreported. People prefer self-treatment or wait to recover naturally.
It is advisable to seek treatment in cases of food poisoning to avoid complications.
To underline the public health importance of using treated animal manure in crop farming, I should summarise the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection in the US between March and June 2018.
The outbreak was in 36 states and was termed by the Food and Drug Administration as the largest since 2006.
Some 210 people got sick, with 96 being hospitalised, 27 had bloody urine while five died.
The infection was traced to lettuce grown using contaminated water in California and Arizona.
There was a large cattle farm near the canal that supplied water to the lettuce farms.
From the enquiries I received regarding the proposed regulation, I was convinced the public requires to be sensitised on good agricultural practices and the need for regulation.
Farmers and consumers need to understand the relationship between food production methods and food-borne infections.
Finally, as the population grows and with the rising demand for food, there is need to formulate strict food safety laws.
Such laws must be diligently enforced. Failure to enforce them is the reason our country is struggling with preventable problems like typhoid, cholera and E. coli.