The World Food Programme’s (WFP) food safety and quality initiative began in Kenya following the gradual handover of the school meals programme to the government of Kenya in June 2018.
In a bid to ensure the safety and quality of foods consumed in schools, the national and county governments with support from WFP developed a National School Meals Food Safety and Quality Assurance guideline. This guideline provides practical guidance for school management committees, food suppliers and public health officers (PHO’s) on the effective implementation and management of food safety and quality regulations for the Home-Grown School Meals (HGSMP) which benefits some 1.6 million children in the arid and semi-arid lands.
To-date WFP has trained 230 PHO’s in 10 counties and provided 13 mini-laboratories in three counties, enabling health officials to grade and test food for the presence of mycotoxins such as aflatoxin and fumonisin at the county level.
Training and Capacity Building
Marsabit, Kenya’s largest county of some 70,000 square kilometres, is one county where WFP has trained 20 public health officers in the areas of food safety principles, sampling, testing and grading of grains in line with East African standards.
“As public health officers, our role is to ensure that along the food supply chain we can monitor the critical points through which possible contamination can occur,” says Gobba Boru Doso, Food Safety and Quality Control Coordinator for Marsabit County.
Initially, food safety and quality control testing testing programmes, funded by the Canadian government and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), concentrated on grains, beans, rice and maize as these are what are largely eaten in school feeding programmes.
“Most of the grains that we consume in Marsabit come from Ethiopia,” says Boru Doso, “The labelling is often in a different language and we must ensure that all the food meets both the Kenya Bureau of Standards and East African standards.”
In a bid to further expand the county’s capacity to ensure food safety and quality control, WFP has provided three mobile laboratory kits which are now working in various locations across the vast northern county.
The mobile laboratory kits enable public health officers to grade grains, test them for moisture content and even detect the presence of mycotoxins such as aflatoxin and fumonisin that are harmful to health when eaten by people or livestock.
Aflatoxins are poisonous carcinogens produced by moulds that grow in soil and grains. Children are particularly affected by exposure to aflatoxins.
Before the arrival of the mobile laboratory kits, any food suspected of contamination had to be sent 530 kilometres south to Nairobi for testing.
A Success Story
In 2018, a consignment of 2,500 bags of maize suspected of having high levels of aflatoxin was seized by public health officials in Marsabit. Much of it was relief food being distributed by the county government through the region.
“This was the same government that we were working for,” says Boru Doso, “It was not an easy thing to do, we had to take head on the same government which is our employer and seize the maize because by law it did not meet the required standards.”
After extensive testing in Marsabit and more testing at the University of Nairobi, 600 bags of the maize were found to contain high levels of aflatoxin.
Marsabit public health officials argued in court that the maize was detrimental to the health and welfare of both school children and the population at large. A destruction order was granted for the 600 bags and the county government was compelled to dispose of the affected food.
“The county government was very supportive, and it was after this incident that the story of WFP’s mobile laboratory kits came to the attention of the county government’s steering group,” says Boru Doso.
The ability to test food locally has not only enhanced the county’s capacity but that of public health officers too. Those certified by the Aflatoxins Proficiency Testing for East and Central Africa Programme can share results internationally and their expertise is highly sought after at food-related conferences and seminars.
Looking to the Future
“The training and mobile laboratories have made our work much easier,” says Boru Dosu, “Our young officers are particularly eager to learn and to see the results of tests. It is a huge capacity for us as a county and as individuals too.”
The efficient collection of food-related data locally also means that the Ministry of Health can call upon data generated by counties such as Marsabit to establish a country-wide database on food safety and quality.
Although it is still early days in implementing food safety and controls in Marsabit, talks are taking place on ways to certify food in a financially sustainable manner. One idea under consideration is to charge food producers and suppliers for certification and use those funds to re-invest in the initiative.
“A way of measuring the success of this intervention is that all grain suppliers within the county now know that they need to be certified and issued with a public health certificate,” says Boru Dosu, “We have created a demand that never used to be there.”
A Public Right
What began as a way of ensuring food safety for school children has now expanded to all other areas of the county’s food supply chains. Following high profile success stories by health officers in Marsabit, the public are now more vigilant and aware of their right to demand health certification of their food.