Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Firms push for more punitive sanctions on errant manufacturers

A multi-sectoral forum has urged the government and consumers to show vocal support for manufacturers that use food additives in the prescribed manner as well as punish and expose those engaged in unethical use of the same to gain unfair advantage.

This emerged following a workshop in Nairobi which brought together participants from the local food industry, researchers from academia, regulatory agencies, consumer groups and media.

Hosted by the Department of Food Science and Technology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), the one-day workshop, titled Food Additives and Food Safety, brought together a number of State regulatory agencies, led by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KeBS) and the Ministry of Health.

The workshop tackled a number of issues touching on the use of food additives and implications for food safety.  These included food safety regulations and standards, consumer concerns parlayed against scientific evidence and safety evaluation of food additives.

While the use of food additives to maintain quality, ensure safety and improve appeal has become imperative in the food industry from time immemorial, and especially as populations move from the exclusive consumption of grown to manufactured food, the practice has been held hostage by deep-seated fears and myths especially among certain consumers, largely on the back of inadequate information on the same.

While there was strong scientific evidence by an impressive speaker panel that included Professors Anselimo Makokha (JKUAT), Jasper Imungi and Symon Mahungu (Egerton) to back up the safe use of food additives in the industry, what emerged from the workshop is that the practice has continued to come under sustained and “uninformed” assault in the public space in the recent past.

There was feeling that the Government needed to come out strongly to validate and endorse the “regulated” use of food additives in the industry as a way of protecting ethical businesses, protecting jobs and the economic support ecosystems which depend on the same and promoting fair trade. 

In his remarks, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Health Fred Segor, while urging industry to observe good manufacturing practices so that “their products do not harm consumers”, noted that while the key objective of Government was consumer protection, there was need for collaboration on the matter between the Government, industry and consumers. He particularly lauded the workshop, which was the result of collaboration between the university and industry, as a good model on which to build.

“This (collaboration) is important because it can ensure there is variety in food additives and better quality of the same. Consumers need to make informed decisions, but they can only do this where there is clarity on the substances involved,” said Prof. Segor.

Clarity to inform consumer choice is a major concern for regulation and this was ably articulated at the conference by a regulator panel that included KeBS and Ministry of Health. There was also strong input from international experience in the two papers presented by Dr Wilna van Rijssen on harmonization of regulations to improve trade and Lynn Insall, who gave an overview of the global regulatory landscape.   

Closer home, what emerged is that while devices like labeling can be used by manufacturers as required by regulators, there is need to seek greater harmony in the same (names or chemical formulae?) and engage the public and industry more to achieve greater understanding.

“The Kenya Bureau of Standards (KeBS) needs to sensitize producers so that they do not use more than the allowable levels of additives. When additives are used to mask certain deficiencies in the product e.g. staleness, then you are not only putting the consumer at risk, but also encouraging unfair competition. But consumers should also know what to look for,” argued Prof Imungi.

The ideal would be what Dr. Wamwari Waichungo, Coca-Cola’s Vice President for Global Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, who gave the keynote address referred to as a Golden Triangle: sustained collaboration between manufacturers, academia and regulators to ensure informed choice and safety among consumers while at the same time supporting fair trade and competition.

“We need to alleviate consumer fears. There must be harsh and punitive measures for those who mislead consumers and deliberately adulterate their products. But the whole industry also needs to be accountable,” argued Dr Waichungo.

The workshop was the result of collaboration between Coca-Cola and a number of partners, mostly members of the Food Additives and Food Safety Committee comprising KeBS, Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), Unilever and JKUAT, among others.

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