Policy, regulatory flaws expose Ugandans to bad food - report

Water and Environment minister Sam Cheptoris inspects locally processed peanut butter and sheanut butter in Patongo, Agago District, in 2018. PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • The report recommends that the government should establish an independent food authority. 

A new report by Makerere University’s Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) has cast a dark shadow over the safety and viability of foods that are locally processed and consumed in Uganda due to weak regulations and policies.

The EPRC published a policy document titled “Does Uganda’s food policy environment respond to the food safety needs of the population?” in February 2023.

In the report seen by Monitor, EPRC detailed severe risks that Ugandans continued to shoulder by consuming food processed under the loose policy and regulatory environments.

The document points out that the Food and Drugs Act of 1964, a fundamental law that governs food safety in the country has not been amended to account for changes in technology, rising food safety issues, and challenges related to agricultural practices, and food production, among others.

For example, the government converted the drug element into the Drug Act under the National Drug Authority (NDA) to regulate drugs. Unfortunately, the food element of the Food and Drug Act is not active, leaving the food element an orphan that the food industry actors exploit with several unsafe, processed foods, the report says.

“Moreover, the Food Act has not been amended to account for technological changes and food safety issues. In addition, only the Public Health Act, of 1935 addresses elements of food safety, however, this is limited to only meat and milk,” the report adds.

Whereas the act prohibits adding harmful substances to food sold for human consumption, the researchers observed that such substances ended up in flour (posho and millet flour) and grounded nuts, compromising food safety due to poor equipment including wear and tear of machines used in processing food.

“This leaves the food environment, especially food safety, prone to contamination,” it said.
Whereas food labeling is emphasised in the law, not all ingredients and foodstuffs in the market are labeled, the findings indicate. 

“There are still several foodstuffs and ingredients without such labels. In addition, the labels are not simplified and are challenging for the majority population to understand. Chemical substances of health concern still end up in food due to the use of poor equipment.” 

While salt fortification with iodine is mandatory, the report says some salt on the market has low levels of iodine, below the minimum requirements per the standard.

“A report on maize fortification indicates that only four out of 28 maize millers were fortifying maize flour in 2017. School canteens are still selling processed foods and beverages in the availability of the 2008 draft School Health Policy 2008.”

Today, several measures have been set up by the government, which lays out hygienic food practices in mass catering deals. It also clearly states the hygienic requirements for foods intended to feed large groups of people.  In addition, the Public Health Act empowers the Ministry of Health to make rules and policies for licensing, regulation, and inspection of eating houses and the preparation and sale of food by hawkers. 

But numerous challenges have engulfed Uganda’s food supply chain recently. For example, in 2019, the UNBS in its report pointed out that chemical substances of public health concern such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and pesticides, including residues of disinfectants and veterinary drugs have been detected in food and food products in the market.

EPRC recommended that for the situation to be reversed, the government should establish an independent food authority.

“There is an urgent need to establish an independent Food Authority which will have exclusive overall responsibility for ensuring a healthy food environment and that food consumed by the citizens is safe and nutritious,” the EPRC report states.

The absence of an authority to handle the food component of the Food and Drug Act of 1964 is a major challenge to achieving a healthy food environment that promotes the consumption of safe and nutritious foods, it further observes.

While it called for the restoration of the hygiene and sanitary inspection system to ensure adherence to the existing regulatory measures for food and food products, it also tasked the government to review the Food Act of 1964. 

“Considering the changes in technology and rising food challenges, we recommend the immediate review of the food act to reflect changes in technology and the food environment.”

Govt responds
But the National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) disputes the findings of the researchers referring to it as deceptive and misleading.

Ms Sylvia Kirabo, the principal public relations officer at UNBS, in an email response to this publication, wrote: “It is not right that food labeling isn’t done as per requirements. This is false. The findings are heavily deceptive and not very accurate.”

Ms Kirabo says that before a product is certified, labeling is one of the aspects that UNBS audits companies against and the company must comply with it before it’s granted the UNBS Quality Mark. She adds that nutritional labeling is part of the requirements to which fortified foods must comply.

For example, UNBS indicates that almost 99 percent of all the salt on the market is fortified with iodine.

“Several clients have applied for certification of fortified products and the process of certification is ongoing. Once permits are issued, the list, accessible online, is updated automatically,” Ms Kirabo says. Regarding poor equipment and the tear and wear of machines used in processing food ending up in processed foods, she noted that UNBS conducts an onsite audit and plant and equipment design used in production of maize flour is audited before certification of the product, she added.

“Hurdles in the enforcement of standards include among others, unstructured trading systems in the largely informal (economy) sector, limited awareness of applicable standards, and generally low staffing levels for UNBS (currently with about 500 staff to scout the entire country),” Ms Kirabo says.

Meanwhile, a majority of food processing companies that UNBS certifies are small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that struggle to meet the basic standard requirements. Examples are maize flour production companies forming the majority with up to 415 companies as of April 26, 2023,  according to UNBS. 

“Considering the existing challenges of not meeting the baseline standards, UNBS continues to build the capacity of SMEs on standardisation by promoting the adherence to minimum requirements, especially on maize flour,” Ms Kirabo says.

Quality control 

UNBS indicates that unlike maize flour, fortified edible oils and fats, fortified wheat flour, and fortified food-grade salt are all produced by companies with already-established quality control systems and this promotes ease of compliance.