Food safety time bomb

Dicey: From ingredients to preparation and handling, Botswana are sitting on a food safety time- bomb. PIC: KAGISO ONKATSWITSE
Dicey: From ingredients to preparation and handling, Botswana are sitting on a food safety time- bomb. PIC: KAGISO ONKATSWITSE

Mmegi investigations have uncovered a chain of food suppliers, local retailers, supermarkets and informal traders that sell harmful and toxic foodstuffs, some possibly carcinogenic, which have slipped through the cracks of lax food safety protocols in Botswana. Staff Writer, THALEFANG CHARLES reports

Food safety experts, scientists and consumer rights’ activists say Botswana is sitting on a ticking time bomb as Batswana continue to consume toxic substances in their food, blissfully unaware of the consequences.

Large volumes of unsafe bottled water, canned foods, beverages, cheap generic soft drinks, pre-packaged snacks, sauces and spices continue to pass everyday undetected by food safety authorities and ending up as people’s meals.

Botswana, being a landlocked country with a narrow food manufacturing base, has become the dumping ground for below standard and contaminated foodstuffs that have failed to make the grade in neighbouring countries where there are stricter food safety controls.

Some unscrupulous large retailers are allegedly using loopholes in the country’s porous Food Control Act to push their profits up by importing condemned food products from countries such as South Africa, India and China.


Health inspection reports

Mmegi is in possession of numerous documents implicating leading retailers and suppliers that sell unsafe foodstuffs in Botswana.

The documents are laboratory reports from National Food Technology Research Centre (NFTRC) and the Ministry of Health’s (MoH) Food Control Laboratory.

This publication also has detailed reports from MoH raids and inspections carried out at number of warehouses owned by food suppliers around the country.

One such report from 2014 is about an inspection carried out in Gaborone at a leading government supplier (name withheld), which uncovered a number of breaches.

The company supplies 207 government institutions with a variety of food items that include coffee/tea creamer, powered drink, soup powder, jelly, custard and jam packaged in 25kg bags.

The inspection report shows that items such as coffee creamers, spices, custard powder and jelly were found to have expired, while the expiry date on other boxed coffee creamers was illegible.

The report states: “The company produced their own labelling stickers and changed expiry dates at will. The expired coffee/tea creamer in small sachets was re-packaged into 25kg bags with new expiry dates”.

The report also noted: “There is possibility of food contamination as cleanliness is compromised”.

On further investigations, the company was found to be without a licence to package although they were found re-packaging expired coffee creamer from small sachets into 25kgs bags.

The company is also accused of buying expired food from South Africa at R10.00 per sachet and selling it at P410.00.

The report says, “an invoice for expired coffee/tea creamer shows that one 25kg bag retails for R10.00 in South Africa whereas it is sold for P410.00 in Botswana.”

The company’s response in the report was that, “the expired coffee/tea creamer was not meant to be sold, but was intended for donation to local orphanages and that they were not aware that re-packaging required separate licensing”.

Mmegi is also in possession of four reports by the NFTRC and National Food Control Laboratory on quality checks it conducted on food samples from a warehouse supplying one of the leading retailers in Botswana back in 2011 and 2012. The reports details high levels of contamination, expiry and damage of foodstuffs found in the warehouses. The foodstuffs seized were, according to the reports, declared “unsound or unfit for human consumption”.

These included large volumes of items such as tonnes of rotten rice covered in mould, flour, expired jam, fruit juices, sweets, and bacteria infected spices.

Despite the mass of reports and evidence to the contrary, the MoH insists Batswana are safe when eating the food they buy from supermarkets.

“Batswana are safe from the food that they buy from supermarkets. The Ministry of Health and other statutory authorities work collaboratively to maintain the food control and safety system through surveillance, testing for non-compliance and consumer education,” said a Ministry spokesman when responding to Mmegi questions. The ministry, however, acknowledged that there are incidences where absolute food control and safety is contravened, saying such instances are, “dealt with comprehensively in the context of Public Health Risk Management”.


Inadequate legislation

Experts on food safety are pointing accusatory fingers at the Ministry of Health, saying an environment that allows corporates to put Batswana in danger with unsafe foods, is being nurtured by inadequate legislation.

Botswana’s food safety is governed by the Food Control Act of 1993 apparently drawn up by the United Nations Food Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) officials. 

The Act only prescribes the establishment of National Food Control Board (NFCB), which serves as adviser to the Minister of Health on food safety matters. The board comprises of government officials from various key departments including health, trade and agriculture. There are also scientists and members from the private sector. Although the NFCB exists, there is no food authority that could be tasked with setting out and managing systems to ensure compliance with the Food Control Act.

The management is mostly tasked with a small and incapacitated unit at MoH.

Mmegi investigations point to poor working relations between the Food Control Unit and key stakeholders such as the Botswana Bureau of Standards (BOBS) and NFTRC, which leads to poor coordination of food control.

A local food scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that international best practice is the establishment of Food Safety Authority.

“Without a well resourced authority, government cannot succeed in managing food safety,” he said.

“Because of lack of sound legislation and proper monitoring, people in Botswana are at risk of consuming carcinogens that could manifest into cancer after a period of time.”

He explained that carcinogens once inside the human body could take number of years to develop into tumours. This could take years after consumption of toxic substances from harmful foodstuffs.

Responding to Mmegi questions on the inadequacy of resources to deal with food control in Botswana, the Ministry said although due to the extensive nature of the food processing and retail systems there would always be personnel shortages. Asked to avail records of inspections from food retailers, the ministry responded by saying: “There are millions of food items traded everyday in the food retail industry. The Ministry of Health, in collaboration with other stakeholders, conducts surveillances and factory inspections and records are kept for any food analysis or hygienic checks done.”

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