In wake of China virus crisis, food safety agency critical
Thursday, February 20th, 2020
By Rikki Agudah
The world is watching, with a sense of despair, at the coronavirus outbreak in China. This is because of the speed and magnitude of infections within China, and potential for global spread.
Within the first week of its discovery, at least 100 and people died due to the virus and 4,656 cases of infection had been reported in Wuhan province, China alone.
Due to the overwhelming numbers of patients crowding hospitals in the province, the Chinese government started rolling out massive infrastructure intervention, including building a hospital dedicated specifically to handle the virus cases.
As this crisis unfolds, the following emerging facts have come to fore: a food-related cause was associated with the outbreak, especially diets having meat from wild animals such as snakes and bats. The other concerns are fast infections even before symptoms show —it takes about 14 days for symptoms to manifest after infection has occurred.
In Kenya, the coronavirus hysteria is gradually setting in. More people are sharing their concerns, especially on social media platforms where one of the trending topics has been on the 2019 Coronavirus, as the epidemic continues to spread.
Their worries are not unfounded because China is an important trade partner to Kenya. Kenyans also make up a large part of the student and working population in China. The transport sector is also a major cause for concern because although major airlines have grounded direct flights to Beijing and other major destinations in China, some airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, which operates within East Africa still have flights to and from the Asian country.
The concern voiced by many Kenyans is more on the country’s ability to deal with such an epidemic should it strike, not the ability of the Chinese to manage and conquer the threat. Currently, Kenya lacks even the capacity to detect if someone is a carrier because of the delayed symptom stage of the virus.
Many non-state actors have been calling for a coordinating agency to deal with food safety in Kenya since 2005. These efforts resulted in a draft National Food Safety Policy in 2013, but the same did not result in the coordinating agency, largely because of the push and pull over the agency’s mandate and control.
In 2016 there was a renewed push for the establishment of the national food safety agency from civil society organisations working in horticulture and dairy sub-sectors. With the proposed Kenya Food and Drug Authority (KFDA), some momentum was gained. However, the lumping together of food and drug issues under the proposed authority, was inevitably flawed. In 2019, the proposed KFDA was shelved with a new move to a proposed National Food Safety Agency, which would solely address food safety issues.
The enactment of the National Food Safety Agency is being foot-dragged, which is not helping the situation. Counties have realised the importance of coordinating food safety actions between production, processing, distribution and marketing stages for both locally grown and imported foodstuff. Processes at the county level are, however, delayed by the lack of an operational National Food Safety Agency. It is important that this process is completed to ensure our regulatory agencies and private sector develop harmonised action plans to contain emerging threats such as the novel coronavirus. China’s response shows coordination is key to success as food safety is a multi-sectorial affair.
—The writer works with Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya