Initially, when Nairobi resident Diana Muthembi went shopping at the food market, two things informed the decision on the produce she bought.

The first was that the vegetables, tomatoes and onions, among others, were to be of the right price and second, they were to look fresh.

“If the vegetables looked withered, I would not buy them because I knew they had stayed longer at the market,” said Muthembi, an insurance agent, on Tuesday.

And as she did this, the price was not to be more than 10 shillings (about 0.8 U.S. dollars) a bunch, what many Kenyan consumers consider affordable.

While these two considerations have been the most important ones for the millions of consumers across the east African nation, raised awareness on the safety of food people should consume is making consumers find more about what they buy.

“I now ask the seller where she gets her produce to be assured of the quality. These days I also source my food from specific sellers,” said Muthembi.

Muthembi’s concern and that of millions of other Kenyans on what they eat are informed by the rise in cancer cases in Kenya, with the upsurge of the disease partly linked to the misuse of some farm chemicals.

About 28,000 Kenyans die of cancer annually with new infections recorded at about 33,000, according to the ministry of health. The high infections and deaths have pushed to the fore the food safety debate in Kenya.

“We are glad the issue of food safety is becoming of great interest to Kenyan consumers, farmers and policymakers,” said Daniel Maingi of Kenya Food Rights Alliance.

Maingi noted that farmers and consumers are beginning to realize that they have a role to play to ensure bad food does not end up on the plate.

“Farmers are getting affected as they spray the chemicals. Those who have been misusing the pesticides are now learning that they don’t need to spray their crops unnecessarily,” he said, noting that allergies, skin burns and cancer are some of the challenges farmers have to grapple with.

Lobbyists are currently pushing for immediate withdrawal from the Kenyan market dozens of pesticides that contain active ingredients like permethrin, carbendazim and acephate said to be toxic to human health and the environment.

Maingi observed that food grown for the export market is farmed under restricted conditions to ensure it meets set standards, especially when it comes to maximum residue level.

However, most of the food sold in the local market have higher pesticide residue level due to misuse of farm chemicals.

This is because of lack of policies on traceability and unstructured market since most of the food is sold in flea markets.

“But we are seeing things changing as supermarkets, formal vegetable stores and online food suppliers start to buy farm produce from farmers. The market is getting structured and food safety is taking center stage,” said Beatrice Macharia of Growth Point, an agro consultancy.

The quest to buy secure food has given online groceries business, which are on the rise in Kenya as consumers seek convenience and trusted sources of produce.

“I like arrowroots, bananas and sweet potatoes, but I stopped buying from the open air market because the sellers could not assure me of quality. I now source from an online grocery, which vets its farmers and monitors how they grow the produce,” said Gerald Situma, a banker in Nairobi.

Kenya is from Wednesday hosting an international conference on food safety in Nairobi, which targets farmers, sellers, consumers and exporters of fresh produce as the country seeks to boost awareness on food safety.

Hamadi Boga, the principal secretary in the State Department of Crops Development and Agricultural Research, notes that Kenya lacks a food safety policy though the country has some laws to protect consumers from unsafe food.

The country is working on a proposal to establish the National Food Safety Authority, he adds. Enditem

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