Due to drought and rising prices, severe food insecurity is widespread in Kenya. Due to rising food, transport and gasoline costs, the annual inflation rate hit 8.3 per cent in August.
The government also cancelled the maize subsidy scheme given to 129 millers to cut maize flour prices to Sh100. Maize flour prices are at their highest in five years, at over Sh200 per two-kilogramme packet.
Given stagnating earnings in urban regions and declining income-earning prospects in rural areas, food supply is limited for poor families.
But food security is a major determinant of health. It affects the survival, well-being, livelihood and productivity of individuals and, ultimately, societies.
Foodborne diseases are a huge burden and challenge to public health globally. In Southeast Asia, 150 million people suffered foodborne diseases in 2010 with 175,000 deaths, 40 per cent of the disease burden being among children under five years.
About half of malnutrition cases are not due to lack of food or a poor diet but poor water and sanitation facilities and unsanitary practices that lead to life-threatening diseases and infections such as diarrhoea. Overuse of antibiotics in veterinary and human medicine has led to antimicrobial resistance, now one of the major threats to modern medicine.
Unsafe food refers to food that can be harmed by unhealthy fats, high energy density and high salt content, contributing to an increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Street food, commonly consumed in the country, poses a health hazard as it is contaminated with infectious viruses and bacteria, leading to many foodborne illnesses.
The increased food poisoning cases is alarming, as food safety standards are being challenged. Unsafe food not only causes short-term damage but also creates a vicious cycle of lethal foodborne illnesses.
Kenya has no clear information on food-borne illnesses since the government has prioritised NCDs, malaria and HIV/Aids in recent years. But a 2010 WHO study showed tainted food was the source of 600 million diseases worldwide, 420,000 of them resulting in death. Foodborne diseases were also found to be more common in developing nations.
A $770,000 grant has been given to the CFAES Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI) to enhance food security and stop foodborne infections in Kenya. The study is one of four new research initiatives unveiled by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety, supported by USAid.
Researchers from Ohio State, the University of Florida, the KeMRI and the University of Nairobi are working on the 3.5-year project, “Chakula salama: A risk-based approach to reducing foodborne diseases and increasing production of safe foods in Kenya.”
Public health surveillance initiatives for foodborne illnesses and unsafe food should be of parallel importance to consumer awareness. Besides a monitoring body to ensure safe food, there should be public awareness. Food adulteration has also become an issue, especially in the past two years.
These issues, and the ongoing challenges associated with supply chains and infrastructure, make implementing food safety practices a daunting task.