In this analysis, ONYEKORMAKA ASABOR looks at the seeming lax attitude of NAFDAC in the fight against substandard food and drugs
Despite the existence of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), an agency under the Federal Ministry of Health responsible for regulating and controlling the manufacture, import, export, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical supplies and chemicals in the country, there have been series of investigations into food across markets that caused a lot of stir in the country.
The latest in the series is a recent report that three people died in Kano State in March 2021 after consuming a brand of flavoured drink, allegedly containing poisonous additives.
On the trail of the incident are accusations and insinuations that the monitoring agency is becoming reactionary. Then came the question, why has the agency allowed such mess to continue for so long? To a broad spectrum of the consumer population, it is high time the agency became active and disciplined lax officials.
Analysed from the foregoing, not few Nigerians are outraged over the seeming inability of the agency to protect them from tainted products, even as they have been raising concerns over the rising cases of adulterated foods discovered across markets, and questioning the safety of foods on the shelves across markets.
Two lethal options
Now, the masses are torn between dying of hunger or poisonous food? The thought of consuming poison unknowingly has raised hairs, even when buying food from ‘trusted’ sellers. Imagine the picture of a watermelon seller using the knife for slicing the fruit to scrape the sole of his feet.
Nigerians have become cautious of the food they consume due to numerous cases of food poisoning. The reason cannot be far-fetched; such unwholesome foods have been linked with carcinogenic organisms and other dangers.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation estimated that 91 million people in Africa fell ill from consuming contaminated food every year, and 137,000 die as a result. Consequently, the global health agency stressed the need to adapt food control systems to meet changing needs for better public health.
WHO representatives to Nigeria, over time, have called on consumer protection bodies in the country to apply stringent measures to improve food safety for consumers.
It is not exaggeration to say that the burden of food-borne diseases on public health, welfare and economies has often been under-estimated due to under-reporting and difficulty to establish causal relationships between food contamination and resultant illness or death.
The 2015 WHO Report on the estimates of the global burden of food-borne diseases presented the first-ever estimates of disease burden caused by 31 food-borne agents (e.g. bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals) at global and regional levels, while the 2018 World Bank Report on the economic burden of food-borne diseases indicated that the total productivity loss associated with food-borne disease in low- and middle-income countries was estimated at $95.2bn yearly, and the cost of treating food-borne illnesses estimated at $15bn.
Recent years have seen a lot of food poisoning cases that have put to light just how much foods in Nigerian markets have been compromised.
Practitioners in the food industry, almost two years down the line, predicted food poisoning epidemic, if pro-active measures were not taken to sanitise the industry.
Professor Ernest Igwe raised the alarm at the 43th Conference and Annual General Meeting of the Nigeria Institute of Food Science and Technology in Awka, Anambra State, with the theme ‘Traditional Food Processing: Prospects and Challenges’. Among the sanitation tools, according to experts, is the signing of the bill for the establishment of Nigerian Council of Food Science and Technology and Allied Professional Matters into law.
Igwe observed that non-existence of the charter was encouraging unethical practices in the food industry. As gathered, cancer specialists have, for the umpteenth time, warned that consumption of substandard foods could lead to several life-threatening sicknesses.
Nigeria has been mapped as an aflatoxin hotspot. Aflatoxin is a leading cause of liver cancer, hiding in grains like maize and animal food products. Buttressing the foregoing was a research team from Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy that studied aflatoxin presence along the maize value chain in Nigeria. They tested the levels of aflatoxins in three maize products (available in the domestic Nigerian market) in a toxicology laboratory at Michigan State University. The first product was a locally-processed and packaged maize cereal (pap) used as a weaning food and family breakfast across Nigeria. The second was a locally-produced custard (made with imported corn starch), and the third was a locally-produced cereal product from a multinational food and beverage company. The results revealed that the mycotoxins detected in the custard and the cereal from the international beverage company were below limits of detection (i.e., less than two ppb), while the pap had a high level of aflatoxin B1 of 15 ppb, much higher than the two ppb recommended by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria. The high level of aflatoxin B1 in the pap could result from high levels of contamination of the maize grain and/or inefficient processing in terms of the fermentation process.
This confirms that more attention needs to be paid to issues of food safety generally, including among processed and packaged foods in Nigeria.
Delta governor wades in
The expediency of protecting consumers in Nigeria was strongly highlighted when Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, in February 2021, advised NAFDAC on food and drugs adulteration. He charged the leadership of NAFDAC to apply tougher measures to curb adulteration of goods and drugs in the country.
Against the backdrop, it is pragmatic to ask, what has the leadership of NAFDAC been doing towards the protection of the consumer since it interacted with the governor? Only time will tell whether NAFDAC is constitutionally playing its roles towards protecting the consumer from adulterated foods.
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