A reader told me he used to enjoy eating fish without a care in the world until he read the story in Wednesday’s Daily Nation which was promoted on the front page with the headline, "Why that fish could be poisonous".
The promo said: “Is the fish Kenyans are consuming from China safe? This is the question in the minds of many following concerns that tonnes of fish and other frozen foodstuffs being imported into the country are being contaminated with cancer-causing radiation at the port of Mombasa.”
Food safety is important to all of us, and media-created food scares should not be embarked upon lightly. The primary role of journalists is to inform consumers of potential health risks. However, their reporting should be based on scientific evidence. They should not scare us off food without real evidence.
Now let’s return to the Nation story. The full story was published on page two with the headline, "Concern over cancer risk on imported food".
The food scare is underpinned by the following paragraph: “The Nation has accounts from port officials that all containers entering the country, including those bringing tonnes of foodstuffs like fish from China, are inspected using scanners that emit cancer-causing radiation.”
The scanning of containers is an old story. The Daily Nation’s sister paper, the Business Daily, reported in October 2015 that Kenya Revenue Authority was banking on the technology to catch customs cheats. The Business Daily also reported in February this year that the Scanner Integration Project, which the Daily Nation story blames for contaminating Chinese fish imports, was largely funded by China.
Ordinarily, I would not fault a story merely because I would have written it differently. No two journalists can report a story exactly the same way. Their write-ups would differ according to their background, age, education, training, culture, worldview and writing style.
However, facts are facts, and even two reporters would report those facts more or less the same way.
In reporting food safety, the job of reporters is to inform — not misinform or disinform. A reporter should not peddle conjecture, guesswork, supposition or theory. He either brings in sufficient evidence to endorse a position or endorses no position.
The thrust of the Nation story is based on the testimony of “port officials” who spoke “on condition of anonymity”. And their main evidence is that the scanning of containers at the port is a clear indication Kenyans should be worried about imported food, including Chinese fish, that has flooded our supermarket because it’s contaminated with radiation.
In constructing the main message of the story, the Nation story ignores the testimony of KRA and Kenya Radiation Protection Board officials, who dismissed the story of food contamination as hogwash.
Chief Radiation Protection Officer of the KRPB, Edward Mayaka, said the KRA machines are safe. The board, as the competent national authority on matters of radiation safety, has given the KRA scanners a clean bill of health, he said.
But, alas! the Nation did not trust the evidence of those in authority. In that case, nothing could have been easier than getting samples of imported Chinese fish from supermarkets and having them tested to establish whether they have been affected by cancer-causing radiation or not. But that was not done.
In addition, the Nation could have carried a literature survey, which would have established that scanning cargo is a worldwide practice that food radiation experts have certified as safe.
The story, in fact, quotes KRA Commissioner for Customs Julius Musyoki as saying that the effects of irradiation of foodstuff have been reviewed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the WHO and FAO and found to be safe. However, the Nation chose to ignore that as well in angling its story.
The media should trust information given by scientists or those in a position to know, as opposed to anti-science theorists with a possible agenda. For such an important subject as food safety, one wonders why the “port officials” did not stand up to be counted.
Journalists have a duty to restrain themselves from subjugating facts and evidence to conjecture for the sake of a sensational headline.
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