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Revealed: The hidden killer in your meat

Friday June 30 2017

A woman inspects meat. Steak in Kenyan

A woman inspects meat. Steak in Kenyan supermarkets with high concentrations of sodium metabisulphite is categorised as “fresh meat”, which is false advertising. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Meat retailers are using unregulated preservatives in excessively large amounts to preserve meat for as long as three months, investigations by the Nation have revealed.

The use of sulphites — a form of inorganic salts — was banned in 1986 by the US Food and Drug Authority (FDA).


In Kenya, however, this preservative is still in use in butcheries and supermarkets despite the health hazards it poses.

The salts are particularly used in ‘slow’ months such as January when the demand for meat is low.

Butchers have been buying the chemical — also known as sodium metabisulphite — from chemists and agrovets for Sh650 per 500-gramme container.


The sodium metabisulphite is a whitish, powdery compound that resembles glucose and is commonly known as dawa ya nyama (the meat drug).


They mix it with water and spray it on the meat to give it a crisp, reddish colour, which makes customers believe that the beef is fresh even if the carcass could have stayed for up to a month.

Laboratory tests carried out independently on meat samples purchased from supermarkets and butcheries in Nairobi and surrounding regions have revealed the presence of the preservative, which scientists say is one of the agents that cause cancer.

In the tests carried out on June 9, over 98 milligrammes of sodium metabisulphite were found per kilogramme of the minced meat bought in a city supermarket.

The food standards agency of Australia and New Zealand require retailers to label all foods with sodium metabisulphite in concentrations of 10 milligramme per kilo or more.


But the steak in Kenyan supermarkets, with high concentrations of the chemical, is categorised as “fresh meat”, which is false advertising, as the meat has been preserved using sulphites.

By international standards, fresh meat is not supposed to contain any preservative.

Although the Health ministry prohibits the use of chemicals to preserve meat, retail outlets have claimed they have not received any complaints from consumers regarding the quality of the meat.

“This is adulteration. The use of chemicals is illegal and the meat is not up to standard,” said Dr Kepha Ombacho, the director of public health at the ministry.

He was categorical that butchers are not supposed to add anything to meat that could be injurious to human health or life.


The ministry has standardised preservation methods — which include salting, deep freezing and smoking, all of which are harmless. 

In 1986, the US banned the use of sulphites to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables following scientific investigations that linked the preservatives to 13 deaths.

The lawyer representing the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, described sulphites as the “hidden killer” in an article published by The New York Times.

The article noted that many restaurants and salad bars used sulphites to keep fruits and vegetables fresh-looking.

This caused several incidents and deaths that came to be known as the “salad bar deaths”.


Sulphites are used to preserve fruits and vegetables to prevent “unpleasant browning”.

They are also used on dried fruit and sausages, shrimp and lobsters, to prevent ‘black spots’ in wines and to discourage bacterial growth.

Sometimes they are also used to bleach food starches.

In Kenya, undeclared and hidden sulphites in the form of sodium metabisulphite are used by amateurs in unregulated amounts, posing danger to consumers.

Sometimes, the chemicals are used to preserve foods such as githeri and beans in restaurants.


“The sulphite can combine with anything in your body, for example sodium benzoic (another preservative) to produce benzene which is highly carcinogenic,” says Charles Wanjie, a retired chemist.

“It is clear that butchers are using sulphites to preserve their meat, but what is dangerous is the concentrations used. The consumers are also not aware that the meat sold to them is sprayed with sulphites,” says Mr Wanjie.

Though the use of sulphites in processed foods in not new, and they are found in many processed foods as colourings and preservatives, they are known to release sulphur dioxide, which makes asthma symptoms worse.

Scientists also attribute the many allergies common in both children and adults to the excessive use of colourings and preservatives.

“There is a need to regulate sulphites,” says Dr Tula Bowry, an allergist.


Dr Bowry says sulphites, among other things, cause skin allergies, gastrointestinal complications, diarrhoea and vomiting.

While the use of sulphites is regulated in most countries, in Kenya, the regulation is unclear, and public health authorities seem unaware that such a lethal preservative is being used to preserve meat.

“Chemically preserving meat automatically makes the meat a processed food that should be regulated and labelled clearly because an excess of the chemical preservation will give you cancer,” says Mr Wanjie.

In the US, the FDA requires the presence of sulphites to be declared and labelled.


“Any standardised food that contains a sulphiting agent or combination of sulphiting agents that is functional and provided for in the applicable standard or that is present in the finished food at a detectable level is misbranded unless the presence of the sulphiting agent or agents is declared on the label of the food,” declares the FDA in its guidelines.

Sulphur is known to have a distinct, unmissable taste.

If your meat tastes sugary, you can almost be certain that a sulphite was used to chemically preserve it.


There is a growing population of people sensitive to sulphites and countless studies have focused on people with strong allergic reactions to sulphites.

People with asthma, the studies have established, stand a higher chance of sulphite sensitivity.

Sulphite reactions range from nausea and diarrhoea to shortness of breath and fatal shock.