Eat and die: Rwanda supermarkets selling toxic meat

Meat sold in Rwandan supermarkets. Photo exclusive for M28 Investigates

By Samuel Baker Byansi

Kigali – Meat is one of the most used food on our daily plates. I don’t know the extent to which you personally eat meat but you probably eat it at home or from restaurants, and if you are a vegetarian you have a friend who likes meat, don’t you? This story serves to highlight some of the bad aspects of meat being sold by traders that ends up on our plates.

Tito, 33, (not real name) requested to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter and fear that it may cost him his job, has been in the meat industry for now ten years. “It’s really a big mistake and wrong but sometimes we have no option, if you don’t do it you will fall into a big loss,” he said.

There is a boogie between money and greed that ends up killing the innocent.

On 28th July 2019 I lost my beloved mum due to cancer. She used to eat a lot of meat from one of the biggest supermarkets in the city. While at the hospital, I once asked the doctor what could have been the cause of that cancer. He gave very many reasons including “toxic food”.

M28 investigation reveals the dark side of the meat industry and the tricks used by the butchers using dangerous toxic chemicals to preserve meat, putting forward their selfish interests.

The meat industry in Rwanda has suffered for decades, with businessmen trying to make quick money, the cost are for us the consumers to die.  There is a high demand of meat products in the country, chicken, mutton, pork and beef.

According to Tito, meat is added with a chemical known as “Umunyu w’ Inyama” meaning “meat salt”. The substance is always used to give the meat a long life. “Sometimes we have a huge stock and we do not have customers, in such conditions we add the meat salt which helps us to keep this meat for even more than two – three months,” said Tito.

Tito has been working in one of the biggest wholesale meat houses in Kigali. We asked him how they get the meat salt. “We have people in charge of supplying it, you cannot easily buy it from the pharmacy but we have a chain and they do not sell it to everyone. They deal with the bosses.”

Cedric (also not real name) has been working in the meat industry for now five years. He works in a medium meat shop in Nyabugogo. According to Cedric, the meat salt mentioned above is one of their daily ingredients that are added in the meat.

“We use it to keep our meat for long time, so meat continues to look red and fresh,” he said. Asked where they get the salt, Cedric said the salt is brought by their boss. 

Tito’s workplace is one of the biggest in Kigali that supply meat to many supermarkets in the city, including the supermarket which my mum used to get food stuffs from.

Before you rush to the supermarkets for your next favorite dish, you should know the kind of substances that are added in the meat to increase its lifespan. “We use Colorozo, sodium metabisulfite and even formalin on a daily basis to preserve our meat too, this is done such that we don’t find ourselves in losses,” Paul (not real name) said. Colorozo and sodium metabisulfite are white in color.

Paul helped us to know exactly where and how these chemicals end up in the hands of businessmen. “We buy these chemicals from pharmacies around Kisimenti but for Colorozo our boss is the one who always comes in with it,” he said.

With the help of Paul, we managed to buy formalin and sodium metabisulfite from a pharmacist that operates around Kicementi, a suburb in Kigali city. I wanted a receipt but Paul argued that the business is always built on trust.

A plate of a fresh-looking but deadly meat on Rwandan markets. Photo exclusive to M28 Investigates.

“We cannot get the receipt because it is illegal to sell the chemicals to you,” he told me.

The chemicals [like formalin] are packed in bottles and weighed in kilogram before you pay.  In an argument with the pharmacist he admitted dealing with the pharmacy top management.  “This amount is little, and this salt helps you to be sure of the safety of your money in the meat, even the boss is planning to increase the amount because the demand is increasingly high,” he said.

According to Paul, the meat with the chemicals and that without the chemicals look alike.

How it is done

After buying our chemicals, we asked Paul to demonstrate for us how it works. Using different samples, Paul took some sodium metabisulfite powder and mixed it with water then added our sample 1 meat in that water for five to seven minutes.

He removed the meat from the container he used while mixing that meat and we kept that meat for a week. After a weak, we checked our “sample 1 meat” and we found it was still looking fresh without even a smell.

For the “sample 2 meat”, Paul mixed the Colorozo powder in water, he waited for a two minutes resolution, he added in the meat and covered the container for five minutes; after the five minutes he removed the meat and we had to keep it for a week too.

After a week we checked, and found the meat also still fresh but was not as too much red as that which was added in with sodium Metabisulfite. “Colorozo also helps to turn spoiled meat to fresh which helps the bosses not to end up in losses,” Paul added. He later showed us a demo of how it works.

Our last demonstration was to know how formalin works. Paul injected the chemical in our “sample 3 meat” and we also had to keep this meat for a week. We checked after and found that meat not that red but with no smell.

Within that week, for the sodium metabisulfite and colorozo, Paul used to revisit every morning and remix the samples with the chemicals. In the same period we also kept a fresh meat without any chemical and after the week the meat had rotten with a very bad smell.

Investigation following the demonstration

After the demonstration by Paul, M28 Investigates team started an undercover investigation in Tito’s work place, which is one of the biggest wholesale meat shops in Kigali, located in the city business center. For a period of three weeks, M28 Investigates managed to gather enough evidences including video footages that confirm how toxic meat is supplied in different supermarkets in the city ends up on people’s plates.

We collected meat samples from six different supermarkets with an aim of testing through laboratories to determine whether this meat contain chemicals. We visited different laboratories in Rwanda including Bio Medical Center (BMC), Lancet Laboratory, Forensic Laboratory and even Rwanda Standard Bureau but authorities in all these laboratories claimed not to have capacity to test Colorozo and Sodium metabisulfite.

Understanding these chemicals

Our investigations found three chemicals that are used to preserve the meat that ends up on our plates or those of our beloved ones. Among them are; Colorozo, Sodium metabisulfite and formalin as mentioned above.

  • Colorozo

Colorozo is also known as curing salt. It is used in meat processing to generate a pinkish shade and to extend shelf life. It is a mean of food preservation as it prevents and slows spoilage by bacteria or fungus. It is a mixture of table salt and sodium nitrate and used for picking as part of the process to make sausage or cured meat such as ham, bacon, pastrami, coned beef among others; it is also inhibit the growth of bacteria, specifically clostridium botulinum in an effort to prevent botulism.  Following our research on this chemical we found out that this chemical as meant for food preservation had no negative impact on health expect in the situation where it is used in excess doses, which really happens in these supermarkets and meat wholesalers in Kigali.

  • Sodium metabisulfite

Sodium metabisulfite is used as a preservation and antioxidant in food and it is also known as E223. It can be used to preserve color of some fruits such as bananas. It can easily cause allergic reaction to those who are sensitive to sulfite; including respiratory reaction in asthmatics, anaphylaxis and other allergic reaction in sensitive individual. It is also a primary ingredient in Camoden tablets used for wine and beer making. The acceptable intake is up to 0.7 milligram per kilogram of body weight. Sodium metabisulfite oxidizes in the liver to harmless sulfate, which is excreted in the urine. In July 1986, the US food and drug administration FDA banned the use of sulfite in the preservation of fresh vegetables and fruits as it had been linked to thirteen deaths and man illness, mainly among asthmatic.

Mitchell Zeller, a lawyer with the center for science in the public interest, a consumer group that petitioned for a ban on sulfites in food in 1982, said “We are happy that FDA did what it finally did, but it falls short of protecting people from the life – threatening hazards posed by sulfite.” He further added that “sulfite is a hidden killer, and there are millions of people worldwide who are sulfite-sensitive”. The same chemical is now mixed in the meat we eat.

  • Formalin

Formalin is A 37% aqueous (water) solution of formaldehyde, a pungent gas with the chemical formula HCHO, used as an antiseptic, disinfectant, and especially today as a fixative for histology, the study of tissues under the microscopes. A study in 2014 by Mayo Clinic reported that male funeral directors with regular exposure to formaldehyde products – such as the embalming fluid used to preserve bodies after death – were more than three times as likely to die from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) than men who were not exposed to formaldehyde at all.

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a motor neuron disease that causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die, according to The Mayo Clinic. It can affect the ability to control the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe, and eventually leads to death, and now due to greed and selfishness it is ending up on our plates at home.

Food and Drug Authority

Rwanda Food and Drug Authority (FDA) was established by the law No 003/2018 of 09/02/2018 with clear mandate to protect public health, human and veterinary medicines, vaccines and other biological products, processed foods, poisons, medicated cosmetics, medical devices, household chemical substances, tobacco and tobacco products and conduct of clinical trails.

According to the director of this authority, Mr Charles Karangwa, the agency is too young to be blamed.

“It is now one year since FDA was established and in this year we have been working on developing regulations and guidelines to regulate the sector,” Karangwa said, adding that “FDA is on its final stage of recruitment of personnel to enforce the developed regulations and guidelines”. “At the moment it would be speculating to say that the food Rwandans eat is safe or not safe,” he added.

According to Karangwa, Rwanda FDA also received some complaints on chemical use in preservation of meat and fish, but their quality testing lab results were normal.

M28 Investigates asked him to provide the results he claimed FDA had tested and he failed to provide them up to the date of this publication. He, however requested all stakeholders in food sector to collaborate with FDA in protecting public health.

Expert views

According to Dr. François Uwinkindi, the Director of Cancer Diseases Unit in the Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC), some of these above-mentioned chemicals can result in cancer.

“Sodium metabisulfite can be used to conserve food, but formalin should not be used to conserve food as it has bad health consequences.”

Uwinkindi said.

According to him, formalin has been classified as carcinogenic by IARC and long-term exposure to it can cause leas to certain cancers like leukemia, cancers of paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity and nasopharynx.

Asked at what level toxic food was contributing to cancer cases in Rwanda, Dr Uwinkindi argued that Rwanda has no research on the subject in place.

Rwanda Biomedical Center, Cancer Disease Unit is establishing a national cancer registry and as of now it has covered around 80% of cases presenting in health facilities. The data shows an increase in cancer cases.

According to these data, cases increased from 1,820 in 2015 to 2,077 in 2016; 2,282 in 2017 to 2,546 in 2018.

According to our investigation, it is obvious that toxic meat is one of the causes of cancer in Rwanda.

After several mobile calls, phone and WhatsApps messages and emails we sent to the Rwanda’s Standard Board’s Public Relations Officer and later to the Director Raymond Murenzi, seeking for responses to the issue, our requests were futile.

It is high time for the authorities in Rwanda Food and Drug Authority and Rwanda Standards Board to get serious on this matter, and also a high time for Rwandans to get suspicious on what kind of the food they consume.

This story was done with support from the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) investigative project. It’s published in TND News with mutual consent

Copyright ©2020 by M28 Investigates – Rwanda

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