In March this year, 68 students from Nkubu High School fell ill and were rushed to hospital. Diagnosis? Food poisoning.
In another institution, an 11-year-old primary school pupil died on her way to hospital after spending days in bed, sick, in her school dormitory.
Though the school was scanty with the details surrounding the girl’s illness, the parents claim that she suffered acute food poisoning and only died because she did not receive immediate medical care.
In 2015, about 150 students and staff from Strathmore University were taken ill and treated for food poisoning following a dinner at the institution.
Most recently, two people died of cholera after eating food at a wedding ceremony in Karen.
A month later, at least 10 were hospitalised after contracting cholera; the guests, who had attended a conference at Nairobi’s Weston Hotel, were taken ill after having lunch at the hotel.
When it comes to cholera and food poisoning, no one is immune.
Just a few days ago, opposition leader, Raila Odinga, was rushed to hospital after falling ill.
He was treated for food poisoning. On Friday last week, Treasury Cabinet Secretary (CS), Henry Rotich, was admitted to Nairobi Hospital where he was treated for cholera.
The CS was among other top government officials, including Trade CS Adan Mohammed and Trade Principal Secretary Chris Kiptoo, who were rushed to hospital after exhibiting cholera-like symptoms.
The three had eaten food served at a function held at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre.
Unlike this fast-striking form of food poisoning that has been making headlines, there is another that causes a slow accumulation of poisonous contaminants, whose effect ranges from miscarriages and stillbirths to organ failure and various forms of cancer.
In this case, the kitchens in our hotels, restaurants and institutions are not the genesis of the problem.
Does your house help, who prepares most of the meals for your family, understand safe food handling, for example storage of food in the fridge, thawing and cooking before serving it?
Your fridge and microwave, the epitome of a modern Kenyan kitchen, also poses a serious health risk to you and your family, and to your guests.
Dr Andrew Edewa, an agro-food chain expert and lead consultant with Compliance Kenya Limited, an advisory organisation that supports institutions to set up food safety management systems, says;
“Food safety, now more than ever, must be taken very seriously by all people in the food chain; from the producers of the food, to those processing, those distributing, those preparing the food to those consuming it.”
According to Dr Edewa, food safety goes beyond the basics of hygiene, such as hand-washing.
It means ensuring the absence of anything in the food that would harm the consumer.
It is about an intentional observation of food safety quality standards to make sure that in every stage of the food chain, the food does not get contaminated and lead to food borne illnesses.
According to the World Health Organisation, (WHO) over 80 per cent of all illnesses are food-related.
“These illnesses are caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxins and diseases transmitted to humans from animals.”
While all these can be controlled, most people along the food chain are ignorant of the contaminants that they expose the food to.
Food safety risks are experienced at every stage of food management.
The farmer using pesticides on that cabbage that will find its way to your dinner table, or the milk you will offer your child from a cow that is on veterinary drugs all pose health risks.
Even the soil that we plant our grains in could be a food safety risk.
Dr Edewa points out that while there are pesticides and veterinary drugs that are banned, even using the safe ones could pose a risk if the prescribed standards of usage are not adhered to.
“All veterinary medications and pesticides once administered in an animal or crop, require a certain amount of time for the chemical compounds to be broken down to safe forms before humans can consume that crop or the animal produce.”
Unfortunately, most of the time, farmers do not observe this requirement before presenting the produce to the consumers.
This might largely be due to ignorance on the part of the farmer, who might have limited access to information about food safety standards.
There have been cases however, where the farmer is aware of these requirements, but still takes his harvest to the market before the pesticide outlives the required interval between spraying and consuming.
Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable when it comes to contaminated food.
Children easily get dehydrated from diarrhoea, the most common symptom of ingesting contaminated food.
This can easily lead to death if there is no immediate medical care for a child.
Of concern is that many spontaneous abortions or miscarriages could be directly linked to consuming of food contaminants.
“There are three broad classifications of food contaminants or hazards, namely: chemical, physical and microbial or biological hazards,” Dr Edewa explains.
That juicy-looking sukumawiki growing by the road side could easily be loaded with lead, a highly toxic chemical contaminant.
Lead is a heavy metal that comes from the fumes from motor vehicles and sewage water.
Lead in food is one of the slow killers as it accumulates in the blood and intestines and causes poisoning of the nervous system, diseases of the blood, frequent dizziness and fainting spells, heart disease and kidney failure.
Sadly, children are at high risk as even very low levels of lead exposure will accumulate with time to cause chronic illnesses.
We need to realise that what we put into the plants or the animals will somehow end up in our bodies.
Once a cow or a chicken feeds on a plant, we then eat the egg from that chicken or drink the milk from that cow.
There are more chemical hazards in our environment or in products that we use in our foods, including mercury.
Fish, both deep sea fish as well as farm fish is a culprit in transmitting mercury toxins to human.
Also skin bleaching products liberally available as cosmetics contain mercury.
Mercury causes still births and hampers the healthy development of a foetus, as well as causing failure of major body organs such as liver, kidney, skin, heart and nervous system.
Those that live near gold mines, such as residents of Ikolomani in Kakamega County, should insist on safety testing of the water before consuming it, using it to farm or feeding it to animals.
Some food additives are also harmful when frequently consumed as they contain chemical compounds.
These include food colourings, flavourings, sweeteners and preservatives.
Food safety is a constitutional right under the Food Drugs and Chemical substances Act (CAP 254).
Citizens have the right to demand and have access to safe and quality food, at all times.
There are many regulatory bodies that have been set up to uphold and support the implementation of food safety as a right for all Kenyans.
Consumers should insist on food certified by the various regulatory bodies such as Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).
We also need to guard against aflatoxin Thoroughly drying maize before storage prevents fungi growth, which is what leads to aflatoxin.
Discoloured maize, nuts, beans and other grain is a sign of aflatoxin contamination and must be avoided.
Also, if the githeri (a mixture of maize and beans) you cook tastes bitter, spit it and dispose the rest, since this is a sign that the grain is infected.
Contaminated grains must also not be fed to animals as it converts into a more lethal form when we, say, drink the milk from the cow that has fed on the grains.
Even that beloved chocolate could be toxic, more so to factory workers that produce them due to exposure to cadmium, another chemical hazards.
Such workers must demand proper safety gear and regular medical check-ups to ensure that they do not experience overexposure to toxins.
“The way you store food and the way you thaw it before eating it could result to serious illness or even death,” Dr Edewa says.
Microbials or biological contaminants include the microorganisms that mostly favour animal products such as meat, egg, milk, honey, and also fresh vegetables.
All these are the foods we store in our fridges. The act of storing these foods in their raw state together with cooked foods poses a risk to food safety.
“Discipline must be observed when it comes to storing food in the fridge or freezer.
“First, it is crucial to maintain the right temperature of the fridge at all times, and avoid storing raw animal products above vegetables.
“When there is a temperature change, say in the case of power fluctuations, the meats will thaw and drip onto the vegetables, causing contamination.”
The common practice of overstocking the fridge with both raw and cooked food is not advised.
“You don’t have to store food in the fridge if you can get it in your kitchen garden or the next day and prepare it fresh.”
As a rule of thumb, minimise storage of food in the fridge, and if you can, avoid storing cooked food.
Also, any bad smell from the fridge is a sign that food contamination has occurred and as such, food in that fridge must be discarded.
Dr Edewa also cautions on improper use of microwaves, which are repositories of harmful microorganisms.
Most people do not clean their microwaves as frequently and as thoroughly as is required, so when we heat the food in there, all that steam settles as grime and drips back onto the food.
Also, the use of plastic containers to heat food in microwaves is a health hazard.
“Plastics heated in microwave produce cancer causing toxins, which permeate the food.”
So how do we stay safe in the midst of so many dos and don’ts in matters of food handling and food safety in general?
“Luckily for us Kenyans, we eat our foods hot and well cooked; in fact, we overcook our food, thus eliminating pathogens, but unfortunately, eliminating the nutrients too.”
That said, there are basic hygiene standards that all food handlers and consumers must observe to minimise risks to food safety.
Diseases such as cholera get transmitted because those that handle food do not properly wash their hands before and after handling food and after visiting the toilets.
Particularly sensitive foods are milk, poultry products, fish and ready-to-eat foods such as salads and ice-cream.
At the household level, simple practices such as having separate chopping boards for meat and vegetables should be practiced to minimise food contamination.
Also, as a principle, wash your food with clean water before cooking or eating it.
Authorised food inspectors have the right of entry into food handling places like kitchens and food stores in restaurants.
Their main role should not be to intimidate the food handlers or pass punitive measures on food safety, but should rather be advisory.
Food safety and health inspectors are mandated to ensure that the public is not exposed to contaminated food.
An institution with the goodwill to uphold food safety will actually go out of their way to invite a food safety inspector or advisor to train, advice and sensitise all people in the food chain about food safety.
“Ultimately, food safety is about protecting the consumer,” Dr Edewa says.
During the launch of the book, From Farm to Fork, last week, a simplified resource on food safety, by Rachel Kibui, Dr Henry Rotich, Kenya Bureau of Standards Director, Metrology and Testing, said:
“Ensuring food safety does not only reduce the health burden in our country, it also opens up trade opportunities, thus creating employment and enhancing livelihoods for citizens.”