By Sabiiti Herbert
An Open Letter to The Prime Minister and Minister of Health
Dear Commendable Ugandan Leaders,
Data from the World Bank indicates that in 2018, Uganda imported food products worth about USD 246 million, accounting for 8.79% of the total import volume. Judging from our supermarket shelves, it is evident that we import significant volumes of cooking oils/fats, peanut butter, biscuits, candy and a wide range of beverages; among others. In addition to this, we have tremendously big agricultural sector employing over 70% of Uganda’s workforce, albeit informally.
It is however too surprising that Uganda has not had a legislation that ably tackles matters of proper regulation of the food value chain, considering the myriad of public health and national security threats posed by a poorly regulated food sector. Indeed, this is an indicator that we have got our priorities wrong as a country. It appears as if various roles of regulation of food products are torn apart amongst various Government bodies, such as the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, Uganda National Bureau of Standards, National Drug Authority and Office of the Prime Minister. As a result, we in the business sector do not really grasp who does what and when, or what rules truly govern the sector.
No wonder when a number of people died in early 2018 of suspected food poisoning in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda after consuming a certain imported fortified porridge, it was not clear who in the Government was responsible for ensuring that the entry of such a harmful food could have been prevented. Although the Ministry of Health and the World Food Program indicated that they were investigating the issue (thanks to them), the report has never been made public nor has any apparent action been taken by the concerned to solve the systemic issues affecting regulation of the food sector. It appears we are now waiting for another disaster (God forbid), and we promise another investigation whose report will never see the light of day, as more and more Ugandans continue to die of all tribes of food-related problems. As if Ugandans had not seen enough, in 2019 we were treated to a melodrama when a certain unidentified man allegedly reported to National Drug Authority that he had suffered a 6-hour long erection after consuming a certain energy drink, which he had purchased off the shelves of a legitimate supermarket in Kampala. When the drink was tested it was found to contain Viagra! Who knows, this man could have died at the hands of an energy drink that was permitted entry into the country by God knows who. The funniest bit of the whole fiasco was the letter from the National Drug Authority boss who despite finding a drug in the energy drink, indicated that his agency could not act and “passed the ball” to UNBS, all before our eyes; thanks to social media.
With such occurrences it would be expected that the Government should have urgently expedited the enactment of a sound food legislation that ensures proper regulation of the food value chain by now, but it appears our legislators have had more important business to attend to. There has been talk of forming a combined Food and Drug regulatory body, but this has indeed been mere talk, postponement and more talk, but zero tangible action.
The real and most serious danger before us is that lack of proper regulation gives room for criminals or unscrupulous businessmen to exploit the existing loopholes for financial gain, causing more harm to the Ugandan population. At least, we should learn from the Covid-19 pandemic that the real dangers to our human existence are not necessarily the huge missiles or nuclear weapons of our present times, but it could be the small invisible germ within our food, which could potentially wipe out a big population in a matter of days.
I am therefore challenging those in Government. We shall never take you seriously when we see you approving some not so pertinent bills in record time, yet the real issue that affects 42 million Ugandans on a daily basis is left to languish in obscurity.
The writer is a concerned Ugandan Citizen