Kenyans are eating meat laced with dangerous chemicals to make it look fresh for longer, an NTV investigation has revealed, raising questions regarding quality and safety controls within the country’s food chain.
The most preferred chemicals belong to the sulphite family as they not only retard spoilage, but also keep meat looking fresh.
However, the NTV investigation reveals, many other undeclared and unregulated preservatives have permeated the industry.
Food experts say sulphites are generally safe if used within recommended limits, but they can cause negative side effects like nasal congestion, itchy throat, runny nose, skin rash, and hives in some people. The US banned their use as preservatives in 1986.
A supermarket attendant, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said the meat is laced with these dangerous chemicals to make it appear fresh longer, and to minimise losses from spoilage.
Meat, including beef, chicken, fish and mutton, that is not sold after a week, is cooked and served to unsuspecting customers in in-store cafeterias, the source revealed.
“Meat shouldn’t get spoilt in the supermarket. It is considered a loss. We try to minimise losses by using the chemicals on fresh, minced and diced beef,” he said.
The store he works for buys sodium metabisulphite, referred to in supermarket circles as ‘SMS’ or ‘Dawa Ya Nyama’, from Industrial Area in the city. The chemical comes in the form of a white powder and is generally used as a disinfectant, antioxidant and preservative.
“Management expects sales even if the meat stays for three or five days. They want profits, that is why we lace the meat with the chemicals. New mothers prefer to buy either fish fillet or minced meat to wean their babies as they introduce them to solid foods, but I normally feel guilty because I know the meat has chemicals and is not safe," explained the attendant.
NTV’s investigative team bought the chemical and a kilo of meat for the insider to demonstrate the procedure. “Every morning before the doors open for customers, we take packaged meat that stayed overnight, remove the cling film and change the date labels to reflect the current date. If the packaging is stained with blood, we change it and put a new wrapping,” he said.
“We take a bowl of water and mix it with the chemical. We measure the solution depending on the weight or quantity of meat. We don’t use any weighing equipment; this is something one learns over a period.”
When mixing the chemicals, one wears gloves since the chemical is corrosive to the skin and irritating to the eye. The solution is then poured on the meat.
Our two samples were markedly different after the treatment. The first, which was laced with the chemical, had a bright red colour, looked better, juicier, and fresher outside the fridge five days later.
The second, with no chemical, developed a brown-yellowish slime coating and emitted a sickening stench after a few days.
Ms Jean Orwa Banda, a nutritionist, said people who are sensitive to sulphites are likely to have allergic reactions after consuming such meat. “They will experience a lot of wheezing and coughing with no explanation, while for pregnant women the flow of oxygen to the baby might be affected.” The danger is heightened for asthmatics.
Sodium bisulphite works by releasing sulphur dioxide gas, which inhibits bacterial and fungal growth and prevents the discolouration and deterioration caused by common chemical reactions. International health organisations do not recommend it as a meat preservative, especially among asthmatics.
As far back as 1986, health concerns linked to excessive use of the chemical to preserve food forced US authorities to prohibit its use in meats, vitamin B-1 food sources, and raw fruit-cuts and vegetables, such as in salad bars or fresh produce.
This followed a government study of some 500 reports of severe allergic reactions, including 13 deaths, mainly among asthmatics.
-Report by Dennis Okari. Additional reporting by Angela Oketch