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Sugary lies: Who’s fooling who?

There is confusion in Kenya regarding the truth about ‘contaminated sugar ‘reports. Differing information from various authorities have left Kenyans in limbo.

How much sugar was imported in 2017?

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National Treasury CS Henry Rotich differed with his counterpart on the quantity of sugar imported last year.

He told legislators that according to data obtained from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), only 920,571 tonnes were imported during the period.

This was a 100,000-tonne difference from Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri’s figures.

Avoid becoming a victim of Fake News. Subscribe to the Standard Group SMS service by texting ‘NEWS’ to 22840.

Claims of mercury contamination were first made by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i when the Government launched a crackdown on contraband sugar across the country.

He said harmful levels of mercury had been discovered in sugar consignments seized in police raids.

He has since been contradicted by top government officials, creating uncertainty and a crisis of public confidence in the country’s sugar supply.

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Authorities said they had seized over a million bags of illegally imported sugar from warehouses in the capital Nairobi and other parts of the country.

Following the raids, Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i told local media that harmful levels of mercury and copper had been found in samples tested from the sugar seized in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area.

“It is shocking that some of this sugar has been found to contain particles of mercury and copper, which is very dangerous to our lives,” said Matiang’i.

But his claim was denied by the then Trade Minister Adan Mohamed, who denied that the impounded sugar sacks contained mercury.

A few weeks down the line, CS Fred Matiang’i clarified that tested sugar samples did not contain mercury but other metallic elements. The Cabinet Secretary said he only used the term ‘mercury’ as a precautionary measure to the public.

“We are holding 1.2 million bags of contaminated sugar which will not be released to the market. We have written to the Attorney General for direction on how we can destroy the goods,” said Matiang’i.

What are the relevant authorities saying?

The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), the body that regulates food safety in Kenya, has also denied that any mercury had been found in the samples seized. The reports indicated that there were only traces of copper and lead in the impounded sugar.

The agency said it had so far tested 1,266,351 bags (50kg bags) out of the 1,319,668 bags impounded. Out of the 1.3 million bags, only 157,392 met standards required for human consumption.

KEBS boss, Charles Ongwae, told MPs that the samples had been found to contain nearly 21mg/kg of copper, more than 10 times the recommended safe level. In a shock development, Mr Ongwae was arrested barely after the report was released, along with several other KEBS officials, in connection with the scandal.

A report dated July 9, detailing results from tests by the Government Chemist revealed some of the sugar had traces of mercury. The document which contradicts the KEBS report shows that 0.5910 per parts per million (ppm) mercury were found in sugar sample from Bungoma, while tests done on another sample in Nairobi revealed 0.1151 parts per million of the heavy metal.

The tests further detected traces of copper, lead and higher moisture content in the samples tested.

The Government Chemist is under the Interior Ministry and is tasked with carrying out biochemical analysis of products suspected to be toxic.

The officials have been rather reluctant to comment on the sugar scam with few giving very limited information and scanty details on the issue. Another factor that has stirred up confusion.

On Monday, a Government official confirmed the findings, but refused to be on record since the report has not been made public officially by the ministry.

Interior Ministry Communication Officer Mwenda Njoka declined to comment on the report, only saying that, “I can confirm that the CS Matiang’i talked about mercury in some of the tested samples and he must have been sure about what he was talking about.”

Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Chairman Opiyo Wandayi said following the latest report, all the seized sugar should be destroyed to safeguard the public from consuming contaminated sugar.

The revelation emerged even as the joint Parliamentary Committee of Agriculture and Trade said that it will not table its detailed report today (Tuesday) as it was still waiting for some reports from Government agencies.

The committee co-chair Kanini Kega told The Standard that the team expects further reports from KEBS and other agencies.

He said the committee was yet to receive the report by the Government Chemist that indicated the sugar had traces of mercury.

“We are yet to get certain results carried on the seized sugar and we are waiting for it before we can conclude on the report. We want to give the public a detailed report and we expect some of the results by Wednesday,” said Kega.

Mercury is harmful to human as it causes damages to brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system as well as being toxic to central nervous system.

It is however hard to say anything definitive at this point, given the contradictory reports that have been coming from different government authorities.

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But experts in the field are not impressed at the government’s handling of the situation.

“Conflicting information from the government should be a cause for worry for Kenyans”, says Dr Catherine Kunyanga, senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s department of food science, nutrition and technology.

“Any presence of heavy metals in foodstuffs should worry consumers,” she says.

If the reports of heavy metals contaminating sugar supplies are confirmed, she thinks it would be a cause for concern, especially when it comes to lead.

Lead is more toxic than mercury, she says, and children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead, which can damage the brain and nervous system.

As for copper, Dr Kunyanga says it could have been introduced if the soil or water feeding the sugarcane plant was contaminated.

How have people’s lives been affected?

Sugar prices have increased in shops in some parts of the country, creating problems for both traders and consumers.

Dakane Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, says he has to walk long distances in search of sugar to restock his shop.

“We used to buy a 50kg bag of sugar for 4,000 Kenyan shillings (£30; $40), but now it’s 6,300 shillings (£47; $62).

“Now we have to go around looking for sugar, which is not available in warehouses in this area,” he says.

Mr Ahmed says he has almost doubled the price of 1kg of sugar, from $0.80 (£0.60) to $1.50 (£1.10), and he is worried that poor customers will no longer be able to afford it.

Kenyans on social media have expressed worry about consuming toxic sugar and many questions still remain unanswered.

Many have been using the hashtag #sugarylies on Twitter to criticise what they see as misleading and false statements being made about the scandal by politicians.

Govt Chemist: Sugar is contaminated & can destroy internal organs

CS Interior: I’m personally shocked over what we’re doing to our country

Majority Leader: I’ve a list of the importers

CS Industrialization: No mercury found in tested sugar

Kenya has a very irresponsible govt! — Wambui (@Waambui) June 20, 2018

Interior Minister: “We conducted tests & they show the sugar had mercury.”

Trade Minister: ” We conducted tests & they show the sugar had NO mercury.”

Kenya Bureau of Standards: “We are the agency mandated to conduct tests, but we have not conducted tests on any sugars.” — Gabriel Oguda (@gabrieloguda) June 20, 2018

Just ban all sugar imports. I mean completely, absolutely, KABISA! Then revive, modernise and expand all our sugar factories to raise production levels even as we concurently invest heavily in bee rearing, honey production and processing to provide a supremely healthy alternative — Hon Ababu-Namwamba, EGH???????? (@AbabuNamwamba) June 21, 2018

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