Is there mercury in our cups or not?

Is there mercury in our cups or not?

By Payton Mathau

The announcement by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i mid last month that contraband sugar seized in various parts of the country contained huge amounts of poisonous heavy metals has elicited a huge debate and caused panic amongst consumers.

In the days following, thousands of bags of Brazilian sugar were seized around the country in what appeared to be a synchronised operation by security agents, mainly in Kitui, Webuye, Kakamega, Homa Bay, Kajiado, Ruiru and Mombasa, among other towns.

“It is shocking what we are doing to our country. The level of criminality in this syndicate is mind-boggling. This is sugar that has poisonous substances like mercury and lead yet is being sold to Kenyans. For those doing this, know that you are engaged in murder and we will not allow you to continue with this,” Matiang’i declared during the display of the thousands of seized sugar bags at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) headquarters on Kiambu road on June 13.

A toxicology report at the DCI showed that a milligram of the seized sugar contained cancer causing arsenic, copper, lead, cadmium and mercury.

But Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohammed, under whose jurisdiction the industry falls, has questioned the authenticity of the chemical tests results conducted on samples of the seized sugar. According to him, investigations by his ministry show the sugar is clean.

DCI director George Kinoti, however, insists the sugar is poisonous and the police will not allow unscrupulous businessmen to sell it to unsuspecting members of the public. 

Another report by Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) managing director Charles Ongwae – on the same day Mohamed dismissed Matiang’is claims – told the National Assembly Trade Committee that samples of the seized sugar sent to the institution for tests contained no mercury, and that the report had been forwarded to the DCI.

A chemist contested the chemical tests findings arguing that mercury can only exist in ethyl mercury form after binding with some protein material mostly in fish and some animals.

“Mercury cannot be mixed with organic matter like sugar. If you pour mercury in sugar it will not bind with sugar granules; it will settle at the bottom. As you finish your tea, the gobbles of mercury will be clearly visible at the bottom. Lead does not bind with organic compounds and if anyone grinds lead and pours in sugar, the blackish colour will be noticed easily as it reacts with oxygen. Copper oxide, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water or any organic matter,” Ongwae noted in his report.

Ignorant, daft or complicit?

So, was Matiang’is team so overenthusiastic about cracking down on contraband goods as to mistakenly scare the public to justify their operation, genuinely ignorant, or did they connive to mislead the public?

What would be the end game of the misinformation, especially on such an essential commodity as sugar?

KEBS in their letter reference KEBS/OP/52/1 Vol 2 dated August 4th 2017addressed to SGS Kenya Ltd.’s Andrei Koval titled ‘PVOC Certification of Bulk Brown Sugar KSEAS749-2010 Imported by AMNAV Limited’ requested SGS Kenya Ltd to conduct tests on sugar imported by Amnav Limited for West Kenya Sugar Company Limited and Sukari Industries Ltd to ensure that the final product released is to the market complied with hygienic requirements of the standard.

During his press conference, Matiang’i, who was accompanied by the DCI and Deputy Head of Civil Service Wanyama Musiambo revealed that there were powerful individuals who had been making threatening calls to officers involved in the crackdown.

“For those making threatening calls, we are not intimidated. The person to call is His Excellency the President. I am not under any illusions that we are dealing with an easy matter… we are ready for the war. You are going to see stiffer operations. Those who are dealing with this things should turn themselves in and know that we are coming for you. We will go the whole mile because this is a different ball game,” Matiang’i warned.

Shortly thereafter, detectives intercepted three trucks with over 3,000 under declared tyres smuggled into the country destined for the local market. The importer declared 1,800 types as opposed to the 3025 tyres found stuffed into each other during the verification. Over 1225 tyres had not been declared and no duty was paid on them.

According to documents seen by The Nairobi Law Monthly, the tyres were imported by Global Africa Auto Tyres and Accessories Ltd from Dubai’s Balais Trading Company. The clearing agent is listed as Blue Lime Limited. The goods entered through the Inland Container Depot in Nairobi.

Head of DCI Operations Samuel Nyabengi said that investigations into which government officers were involved in facilitating the importer to evade tax had been launched, and those found culpable would be prosecuted.

On June 21, the Multi Agency team involved in the crackdown on counterfeit and contraband goods destroyed some of the seized goods in Athi River’s EPZ area in an exercise attended by Mohammed, KRA Commissioner for Customs and Border Control Julius Musyoki, and KRA Commissioner for Intelligence and Strategic Operations Githii Mburu. (

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