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.
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.
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.
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.
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.