The recent exposé by the Daily Nation on contamination of fresh meat by retail outlets with sodium metabisulphite, a food preservative that can be toxic, is a classic study of commerce without morality as espoused by Mahatma Gandhi.
Reports detailing symptoms of a broken food system including vegetables grown in sewage, pesticide residues in food, aflatoxins in cereals and antibiotics in meat is an indicator of an amoral society.
Food hazards can be linked to four hazards, starting with microbiological ones like salmonella, which results in food poisoning.
Two, physical hazards that lead to physical injury and consist of physical items - insects, nails and hair. Third are allergenic hazards associated with some types of food like peanuts.
The final category is chemical hazards like sodium metabisulphite, and which often leads to poisoning of consumers.
The frequent failures of our system to provide safe food is an indicator of policy, legislative and enforcement gaps and overlaps.
Hippocrates, who lived between 460-370 BC, postulated: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” pointing to the close connection between food and our overall well-being.
The world seems to be waking up to this reality hundreds of centuries later. The key drivers for food safety include greater public demand for health protection, changing agricultural practices and increased global trade.
The current challenges in the food system have left the consumer vulnerable and possibly confirming the old adage, 'if you think it’s dangerous, it probably is'.
To address this, a systems approach to food safety that takes into consideration agriculture, environment and health is indispensable. This would require policymakers to think outside the typical bureaucratic approaches.
At the heart of this is the need to develop and implement regulatory frameworks that recognise that our food system is complex and dynamic, and therefore regular surveillance and monitoring for chemical and microbiological contamination is important.
Secondly, the government should focus on food safety as part of the Big Four Agenda and enforce existing safety and consumer protection laws before considering reorganisation of the proposed Kenya Food and Drug Agency.
In the meat scandal case, the mandate falls squarely under the Public Health docket, which regularly inspects premises and perhaps even collect samples.
How this malpractice escaped them is incomprehensible. There’s no food security without safety.
An article published in Solutions magazine in 2014 by a group of resilience researchers indicated that, “An agriculture (system) that causes long-term or widespread environmental crises is not resilient, no matter how economically successful or how much food is produced, making its profitability and productivity irrelevant.”
There is therefore great urgency in having a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume our foods to one that embraces fairness and flexibility.
Finally, in a study undertaken by Kenya Organic Agriculture Network in 2013 titled “Consumer survey of attitudes and preferences towards organic products in East Africa”, consumers are looking for high quality food, availability and price in that order.
Food systems and diets are key determining factors of well-being, and largely this has increased the popularity and trust in the retail sector.
The meat scandal has dealt a big blow to retail brand trust and equity by consumers.
Ms Kamau is an agriculture and environment expert ([email protected])