The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) on Saturday suspended the licences of five maize millers over the sale of substandard flour, hours before the airing of an NTV investigation that reveals how state regulators have let millers flood the market with maize meal contaminated with high levels of cancer-causing aflatoxins.
In a statement, Kebs said it had banned Dola, Kifaru, Starehe, Jembe and 210 maize flour brands as they “do not meet the requirements of Kenyan market standards.”
The announcement followed a series of calls to the Nation Media Group regarding the investigation, which is understood to have caused panic within the maize meal supply chain. The report, by NTV investigations editor Dennis Okari, airs on Sunday evening.
It shows how Kenyans have for decades been exposed to dangerous levels of aflatoxins in maize and maize products, and links some cancer ailments in various parts of the country to this abetting of a wrong by State agencies. Other contaminated foods include meat and meat products, and peanuts.
Last week Kebs suspended seven peanut butter brands and instructed the manufacturers to discontinue production and recall stocks that had already been supplied for sale. The seven were True Nuts, Fressy, Supa Meal, Nuteez, Sue's Naturals, Zesta, and Nutty by Nature.
Aflatoxins are produced by fungi and grow on grains that are not dried or stored in proper conditions. They thrive in warm and moist conditions.
When one consumes food contaminated with the fungi, the aflatoxin is incorporated into the DNA to form complexes that colonise the liver, leading to the development of mutations that later manifest as cancer.
In Eldoret, doctors have reported establishing a possible link between aflatoxins and cervical cancer.
Dr Omenge Orang’o, a gynaecological oncologist, said a study conducted between 2015 and 2010 at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital revealed a connection between aflatoxins in blood and cervical cancer.
The Sunday Nation could not establish yesterday whether the aflatoxins were the primary causes or cofactors of the cancer story in Eldoret, but Dr Orang’o told NTV that that’s a good place to start to examine the link between the two.
“We encouraged women to come for screening for cervical cancer. They had to have good health with no problem in the cervix, but then we would test them for presence of HPV and also draw their blood and test it for presence of aflatoxins to try and correlate whether their presence encouraged the presence on HPV,” he said.
“Our findings were rather stunning. We found out that women who had detectable aflatoxins in their blood had high chances of harbouring the HPV virus. The higher the aflatoxin levels, the higher the chances of detecting the high-risk HPV that causes cancer of the cervix.”
Mr Andrew Edema, a food safety expert at the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, says the scourge of aflatoxins is much worse than reported, and that the lives of generations of Kenyans have been put to great risk by this exposure.
He points out githeri, a mixture of maize and beans that is popular in many Kenyan households, as the perfect example of how contaminated food does not have to be stocked on supermarket shelves as githeri is often the staple of subsistence farmers across the country.
“In almost every school, our children are eating githeri, some communities have to eat githeri — muthokoi is common in eastern parts of the country while in western Kenya if you don’t eat ugali for lunch or dinner you have slept hungry,” he told NTV.
Dr Eliud Kiplimo Kireger, the director-general at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, says Kenya’s food problems are compounded by the fact that the “aflatoxin is in the soil”.
“It is all over the country. We have not understood why it is high in some areas,” he says, adding: “It is a cancer-causing toxin. There are other mycotoxins, but aflatoxins are the deadliest. We have seen a deadly effect on poultry.”
The global impact of aflatoxins in maize, cereals and animal feed pushed a worldwide mycotoxin regulation as food inspectors in the US and Europe discovered meat and milk products contained unacceptable levels of this toxin through contaminated livestock feed.
The first record of aflatoxin in Kenya was reported in 1960, when 16,000 ducklings from white settler farms in the Rift Valley died from contaminated groundnut feed.
The second time was in 1977, when 100 dogs died in Nairobi, Mombasa and Eldoret from industrially processed foods which had been contaminated with aflatoxins.
The scare forced dog food companies to put labels of quality assurance on their products.
In human beings, the first recorded acute outbreak was reported in 1981, when 12 people died after eating aflatoxin-contaminated food.
Since then, deaths linked to the contamination have been reported in Meru North, Maua, Thika, Mutomo, Makindu, Kibwezi and several other places.
Last month, Agriculture Minister Mwangi Kiunjuri said the State will spend Sh200 million on Aflasafe, a bio-tool used to fight aflatoxin, which will be distributed to affected regions.
“We have been spending a lot of money in finding a cure for cancer and should be very cautious on the type of food we consume. If farmers embrace this chemical in their farms, we will eradicate the spread of cancer in the next 10 years,” said Mr Kiunjuri.
Last evening the Cereal Millers Association decried the banning of the five unga brands, arguing that it did not understand the laboratory parameters Kebs used to test the affected brands.
“Test results for aflatoxins differ from laboratory to laboratory,” said Mr Mohamed Islam, chairperson of the millers association.
“Therefore, we would like to take time to understand Kebs’ methodology of testing for aflatoxins and compare this with our own independent tests, which we do from time to time,” he added.