Zambia plans to fortify staple

An agreement was signed earlier this year between the government and the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition to fortify all maize meal in Zambia with vitamins A and B, as well as with iron and zinc.

The policy was to have been implemented within three months.

The Zambia Consumer Association, tasked to champion and protect people’s consumer rights, said it supported the policy by the government to make it mandatory to fortify maize meal because of the high deficiency levels of micronutrients that needed to be corrected.

ZACA executive secretary Muyunda Illilonga, having earlier condemned the decision to fortify the maize meal on the basis that it would deprive those who directly grind maize using hammer mills in villages and border areas, said in a turn-around that the move was essential to the well-being of majority of Zambians.

Illilonga said after wide consultation with the National Food and Nutrition Commission there was no likelihood that it would close the market or raise the price of maize meal in the country: “We believe that it will help reduce the deficiencies detected in the provision of micronutrients which has led to increased levels of malnutrition,” he said of the policy that would apply to both imported and locally produced products.

He explained that even if Zambia was to import maize, it could be fortified by the local millers or imports would be fortified maize meal from South Africa, where the product has proved to be harmless.

The regulation, when implemented, would ensure that all products are subject to assessment measures like testing, certification, quality control and management and periodical audits to ensure it met the expectations of the people.

The Zambia Competition Commission has noted that, while it supported the new policy, it was against it being mandatory because of the proximity of most of the consumers and that it would be a violation of their rights.

ZCC spokesperson Muyanga Atanga said it was unfair to make it mandatory for all maize meal to be fortified without involving the consumers to enable them decide what they wanted to eat.

He explained that consumers’ understanding of such issues was not strong enough, because of high poverty and illiteracy levels, hence the consumer was being undermined.

He urged the government to devise policies that would work for the country and in contrast to the dictates and rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“There is a danger of ignoring long term issues, because the maize is a strategic issue,” he said.
<BR> Experts at the ministry of commerce and trade supported the proposed fortification of maize meal noting that it worked in conformity with the WTO under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade.

The experts said although the policy was new to Zambia and other Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the government would notify the WTO members through its secretariat in Geneva to comment on Zambia’s plans within 60 days.

A number of foods like sugar, salt, margarine, Milo, Cerelac, Corn Flakes, jungle oats, some brands of cooking oil and baby formulas are fortified before being sold in Zambia.

According to the government, the fortification of maize meal would enable the provision of vitamin A supplementation to over 90 percent of the population and that micronutrients used in fortification have been tested and proven safe and not harmful to human beings.

Health experts are skeptical about the policy warning that mandatory fortification of the maize meal could be a health hazard to those with allergies and would leave no alternatives.

“It might be safe for one person but harmful to another because the manner in which food is used or produced may alter its safety and create problems to some people in Zambia and everyone expects safety in the food they consume,” Doreen Hikeezi of the food technology department at the University of Zambia, told local media.

However, the planned fortification has been received with mixed feelings by consumers . Isaac Bwalya, a farmer in Mpika in northern Zambia, observed that although he appreciated the government’s desire to reduce deficiencies particularly in children, making fortification mandatory would not work in rural areas because people use hammer mills to grind their maize into meal and they would not have time to organize experts to fortify their products before consuming it.

“Such plans are only workable in developed countries, not in Zambia or Africa where most of the population lives in rural and border areas. How will they ensure that all the maize meal we eat is fortified? Do they even have the equipment?”

Other concerned citizens including traditional rulers argue that fortification was not workable in Zambia: “Fortifying maize meal will only be ideal for urban areas because how does the government plan to reach people in far flung areas which they are failing to access to bring relief food. Someone out there must be dreaming.” said a traditional ruler.

Parliament is expected to make the fortification of maize meal law when it convenes after next month’s general election.

If passed into law, Zambia will become the region’s second country, after South Africa, to have obligatory fortification of maize. Zimbabwe and Malawi have completed trials of maize meal supplements and Botswana is moving towards the mandatory fortification of sorghum, its staple crop.

Vitamin A deficiency was first recognised as a health hazard in the 1960s and was concluded to be the main contributing factor to high prevalence of blindness in northern Zambia.

About 50 percent of children aged under five and a third of women between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer from anaemia. Six years ago, legislation made it mandatory for sugar companies to add vitamin A to their products.

But a 2kg packet of sugar costs between US$2 and US$3, while about 68 percent of Zambians live below the World Bank’s poverty threshold of a $1 a day.

September 2006
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