Adapted from: Business Africa
Kenya has no cogent policy on food safety and should urgently develop one.
Currently, matters of food safety are fragmentally handled by the Ministry of Public Health, the Government Chemist, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, the Department of Veterinary Services, and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service.
Coordination amongst these agencies is poor.
Besides, these agencies follow the traditionally and discredited method that focus on food quality assurance on the food-processing sector and inspections of finished products to assess compliance with established requirements.
Increasingly, this traditional approach to food safety is being recognised as an inadequate means of ensuring food safety, because it involves action only after the harmful food has already been produced, leading to the search for other strategies to ensure safe food.
Therefore, the Government should come up with a new policy that tackles food safety issues from internationally recognised approaches such as the FAO-recommended food chain approach.
This approach consists of regulatory and non-regulatory measures implemented at appropriate points in the food chain (from pre-production up to the point of sale) in order to ensure that food meets the required safety standards.
The food chain approach is based on the view that all participants in the food chain—from primary producers to processors to traders—share the responsibility for the supply of safe and nutritious food.
Because it is intended to improve food safety, the food chain approach is an important tool for achieving food security.
Food safety is increasingly attracting concern in the globalised economy.
New technologies allow food products to travel farther and stay fresh longer, paradoxically posing an increased risk of the spread of biological, chemical, and physical food hazards.
The Government’s means of detection, investigation and control of these potential threats is at best poor, leading to instances where Kenyans are exposed to the risks of food-borne disease.
Food contamination problems have weakened consumer confidence.
While some outbreaks are usually accidental and unforeseen, others could be predicted and avoided through proper monitoring and early warning mechanisms and controls.
Furthermore, although some sectors of the food chain are routinely subject to some preventive action and oversight (such as slaughterhouses and dairies), others are less soIn light of these developments, there has been a growing recognition that the traditional pattern of food safety enforcement characterised by ex -post controls on the finished product (which can still be seen in many sectors in Kenya) is not satisfactory for the following reasons.
First, if the product has already reached the marketplace, ex- post controls mean taking remedial action after the harm from unsafe food has already taken place.
This course of action is ineffective (since food safety enforcement should seek to prevent harm) and inefficient (since it leads to greater costs in terms of health care, lost worker time, and product recalls).
Second, by the time an unsatisfactory product is discovered, most of the resources needed to produce and prepare it will have already been expended on its harvest, processing, preparation, packaging, and labelling.
Removing the product earlier would cost less, and problems would have been avoided altogether through a greater focus on prevention of contamination throughout the food chain.
Third, ex-post controls create an unfair burden by placing responsibility on government rather than on the actors who actually produce and distribute the unsafe product.
Although the government has an obligation to protect the health of consumers, private actors also have a role to play.
Recognition of the weaknesses of the current system has led to a number of changes in the food safety area.
The government should shift focus to enforcement from a system of purely government-run inspections to a system of government oversight that monitors controls established and implemented by food businesses themselves.
The inefficiencies in the extension system have deprived farmers of knowledge on food safety controls that comply with established standards. Safe food requires a comprehensive food chain approach, covering all inputs and steps in the production process, from the primary production of food to its processing, packaging, labelling, transport, storage, preparation, handling and sale.
Globally, as part of efforts to improve food safety systems, the food chain approach has been gaining greater recognition in the last several years.
In 2002, the Committee on World Food Security of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) requested a background document on the approach.
The following year, the FAO Committee on Agriculture issued its “Strategy for a Food Chain Approach to Food Safety and Quality: A Framework Document for the Development of Future Strategic Direction.”
FAO reformulated the Strategy in 2005, in part to extend the food chain approach to cover the question of nutrition.
In addition to the two FAO strategies, other recent international documents reflect the importance of co-ordination with the animal-and plant-health areas to improve control throughout the food chain. The FAO Council, at the same 128th session, specifically called attention to the standard-setting work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex, for food safety issues); the Office international des epizooties (OIE, or World Organisation for Animal Health, for animal health issues); and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC, for plant health issues).
In so doing, the FAO Council recognised that food safety and animal and plant health are inextricable.
Safe food cannot be guaranteed unless one begins on the farm, where crops are grown and animals or fish are raised for food.
In other words, one must start where the food chain begins.
Codex itself recently referred to the standards of the OIE and the IPPC in its “Principles for Traceability/Product Tracing as a Tool within a Food Inspection and Certification System,” adopted at its July 2006 session.
Other international organisations have recognised the importance of an interface between food safety and subject areas formerly regulated in discrete sectors.
For instance, the OIE Working Group on Animal Production Food Safety (which includes FAO, the World Health Organisation, and Codex representatives) has drawn up a detailed work programme for the development of standards on animal-production food safety, focusing on food safety measures applicable at the farm level.
Since OIE veterinary experts and Codex food safety experts tend to work mainly separately, a high priority of the joint working group is to review OIE and Codex standards to identify gaps and duplications and to develop procedures for the establishment and mutual recognition of common standards.
Finally, in 2005, a new standard of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) specified the new requirements for food safety management systems throughout the food chain.
The ISO 22000 series of standards for food safety management systems are designed to be applied by food businesses and other commercial entities in the food chain and are consistent with the principles of food safety developed by Codex.
Despite being divided into organisations mirroring in many respects the sectoral agencies existing at the national level, there is an increasing recognition that the best outcomes are guaranteed not by having animal health officers focus only on animal production, environmental experts only on environmental contamination, and public health officers only on food hygiene.
Organisations are recognising that integration and collaboration are critical to an effective food chain approach.
According to the two FAO strategies (which are the main international expressions of the approach), the food chain approach can be described as having four principal characteristics.
First, it is holistic, addressing food safety in the entire food chain. Since food safety hazards may be introduced at any stage of the chain, adequate control at every point in the chain is essential.
Second, the food chain approach is preventive, answering the weakness noted earlier — that in many sectors food safety systems have tended to be reactive, taking action to remove a food product only after it has been produced or even after it has caused harm to human health.
By contrast, with the food chain approach, controls are directed more at preventing food hazards than enforcing standards after the fact
Third, the food chain approach is risk-based, meaning that resources are allocated to combat the hazards that pose the greatest threat to public health, and where the potential gains from preventive action are greatest.
Integrating risk analysis into the food chain approach not only places the system on a sound scientific basis, but also helps to eliminate unnecessary controls, which are characteristic of ex- post inspection systems.
The fourth and final characteristic of the food chain approach is that it posits food safety as a shared responsibility, assured through the combined efforts of all the private and governmental actors participating in the food chain.
Whether shared responsibility means joint responsibility or the allocation of partial responsibility at distinct points in the chain is an open question.
In some respects, legislative implementation of the food chain approach is already taking place with regard to a few subject matters that span most or all of the food chain.
For example, in the regulation of pesticides, legislation reflecting a life cycle approach addresses all steps in the life of a pesticide, from its registration, labelling, application, storage, and disposal, to its residues in common foodstuffs.
Because control starts at the crop stage (or even before) and ends with foods ready for human consumption, it is reasonable to state that the regulation of pesticides reflects a food chain approach.
In the animal health as well, the legal framework captures a food chain approach.
Legislative provisions cover the registration of veterinary drugs; the identification and movement of animals; the treatment of animals with drugs and vaccines (to control residues); animal welfare; and the transport, slaughter, processing, storage, and sale of food of animal origin.
Rules start at the farm and end up governing activities in retail shops and restaurants.
Even clearer is the case of milk. Developed countries have long-established systems of control running from the cow to the carton. he question is whether these kinds of legislation are sufficient to implement a food chain approach.
The problem is that a comprehensive legislative framework for animal health, although it covers all temporal steps, all activities and all foods of animal origin, is still a sectoral approach.
The same is true for pesticides (although the issue is complicated by the fact that the pesticide legislation addresses other important objectives, including protection of the environment and worker health).
The weakness of these examples is that they do not ensure continuity of legal oversight from farm to fork.
Combining these and similar areas would be a step in the right direction, but would not be sufficient, as there would still be nothing to guarantee a whole-chain perspective.
Kenya should urgently establish an independent Kenya Food Safety Authority, with the responsibility for the provision of scientific advice on all aspects relating to food safety, coordination of the operation of rapid alert systems, and communication of risks.
The authority should have a cross-sectional representation in its Board of Directors and shall be required to submit annual reports to parliament on the food safety issues.
This way Kenya will be said to have one of the best food safety mechanism in Africa.
However, all these require a comprehensive policy framework to be put in place.
Mr Wanyama is an advocate of the High Court and Member Young International Arbitration Group, London. firstname.lastname@example.org