EU policy on Kenyan exports creating a local health crisis

Produce ruled unsafe for export to the EU often finds its way onto the local markets. [Aleksandr Todorovic/ Shutterstock]

As the European market continues to dictate strict standards for any product entering its territory, many exporters have been caught out. However, rejected products are finding their way onto local markets. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Kenya, one of the largest exporters of fresh produce to the EU, has been hit hard by officials wedding out produce that the European market has deemed high in residual levels of pesticides and heavy metals unfit for human consumption and environment.

Exports to the EU include flowers, vegetables, fruits, peas and fish. The EU has placed Kenya on the radar as one of the countries with 10% increased Maximum Residual Levels (MRLs), which are the set legal levels of concentration of pesticide residues in or on food.

This classification is for ensuring minimum possible deposits for consumer exposure and consumption. Already about 11 Kenyan exporting companies have been temporarily banned for failing to meet this threshold.

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But about 15,000 Kenyan farmers that sell their wares on the international markets, and who make up 10% of all horticultural growers in the country, have increasingly become responsive to the demands of the European market, implementing practices like judicious application of pesticides, integrated pest management that embraces biological pest control and harvesting at the right time.

Increased farmer training and ad hoc on-site visits by institutions like the government-owned Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, KEPHIS, have equally been pivotal in taming bans.

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“We have been burning the midnight oil (…) We have managed to bring down rejections by more than a half, our farmers are observing good agricultural practices and institutions like KEPHIS have been strengthened to oversight produce leaving the country for export market. We intend to ensure that all our exporters strictly abide by the tenets that bide our trade covenant with the EU because it is a very crucial market to us,” said Dr Casper Akumu of the ministry of agriculture.

Margaret Mwireri, an officer in the Horticulture Crop Directorate, a government body tasked with regulation and development of the horticulture sub sector in Kenya, agreed: “Interceptions and rejections from even one exporter dents the image on the entire sector and punishing thousands of farmers which is why we have embraced serious capacity building and even technology to ensure we nip the problem. We are happy it is working and the European market has expressed satisfaction with the pace of implementation and the results.”

But the country’s adherence to the export market has posed another grave problem locally that consumer lobby groups and medical practitioners have warned is a ticking time bomb.

The products that are rejected in the export market are finding their way to local markets where surveillance and checks are lax. Once some of the exporters get their produce intercepted at the point of entry, they collude with rogue traders to have the produce taken back to the local markets for sale.

According to the Consumer Federation of Kenya, COFEK, a lobby group that fights for the welfare of the Kenyan consumers, vegetables and fruits in the Kenyan markets are heavily laden with metals and harmful pesticides.

Alarming is the fact that Kenyans still buy them unknowingly. “We are talking about fresh produce having some of the heaviest metals like lead and other cancer causing agents, which might explain the rising cases of cancers in the country,” said Dr Muli Musau, a medical practitioner who has been actively involved in carrying out tests and studies on lifestyle habits and their contribution to cancer in East Africa.

In other instances, fake pesticides and those banned in the export market are still being used, especially for produce meant for the local market.

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One such chemical, Dimethoate, is rated among the most lethargic. Three years ago, due to the studies, the government placed an inconclusive ban on its use in vegetables and fruits.

However, only exporters to the EU instituted it. A spot check across agro vet shops across the country shows it is freely accessible.

It is well-known among farmers because it is cheap. “It is a sad state of affairs, if something has been rejected in the export market like the EU on health grounds, it should equally been banned here,” added Dr Musau.

As the $930 million industry continues to reinvent itself to respond to changing market dynamics, the industry players’ biggest headache currently is how to arrest a home-grown health crisis that is threatening to spiral out of control.

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