Last week, an anti-counterfeit body petitioned a Ugandan court to declare that the supply of contaminated food by World Food Programme (WFP) to the people of Karamoja, a Ugandan district, violated international standards.
In March this year, Uganda’s Ministry of Health reported that at least 262 people in the northern Karamoja region had shown mental confusion, vomiting, headaches, high fever and abdominal pain since March 12 after eating Super Cereal.
The Anti-Counterfeit Network, a Ugandan coalition of civil society groups, filed a lawsuit in the Kampala High Court on 14 June accusing the WFP of acting negligently in supplying the allegedly contaminated product, known as “Super Cereal”.
"A declaration that the failure by the health minister and government to cause the reprimand, sanction or prosecution of the first respondent (WFP), its agents or servants for the acts and omissions is an act of connivance against the public which is illegal, irrational and procedurally irregular," the petition reads in part.
Karamoja, a region in norteastern Uganda, has been severely affected by drought and rising temperatures which have contributed to widespread food insecurity, with more than 500,000 people affected by food shortages and malnutrition rates of around 10 percent.
Super Cereal is provided by the Ugandan government’s Maternal Child Health and Nutrition to more than 40,000 children and pregnant and nursing women in the region, according to monthly WFP reports.
In March, the WFP distributed a total of 78.42 metric tonnes of Super Cereal in Karamoja. This was being distributed to 252 locations in Karamoja, including sites across 13 districts that host refugees. This was before WFP moved to halt distribution on 15 March.
The Super Cereal, produced by Turkey’s Demirpolat Group, had been sent to operations in 24 countries before the WFP halted further worldwide shipments on 9 April.
“In our experience, contamination of WFP food is extremely rare,” Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the WFP, told The New Humanitarian on 12 June, two days before the lawsuit was filed. On Tuesday, 18 June, he said the WFP had no comment on the lawsuit.
The New Humanitarian reported that more than 2,400 tests have been initiated to investigate whether there were mycotoxins, heavy metals, pesticides, or microbial contaminants in the samples. One sample tested positive for aflatoxin, a poison produced by certain moulds, according to Uganda’s Ministry of Health. Quite a number of other samples have also been reported to have tested positive for bacteria. The Ugandan authorities reported that these tests were being carried out in laboratories in South Africa and Kenya.
However, most of the information gathered from the tests so far remains inconclusive. Emmanuel Ainebyoona, a spokesperson for the Ugandan Ministry of Health, told TNH that autopsy results of the four people who died after consuming the cereal have also proved inconclusive.
In a separate incident last year, the WFP discovered that 50,000 tonnes of Super Cereal it had purchased for nursing mothers and malnourished children in Somalia, Yemen, Bangladesh, and elsewhere was of substandard quality. Although the cereal was safe, it was found to be low in protein and fat.
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