THE massive influx of adulterated food items into the Nigerian market, with the attendant health implications, is a function of the failure of regulatory procedures and the absence of effective border policing that allows all manner of unapproved products to find their way into the country.
The truth is that while a reasonable amount of the food items consumed in Nigeria may have been produced locally, a large quantity is also either imported legally or smuggled in through the various unmanned or poorly-manned entry points.
Food is essential to life, but if it is contaminated, it can cause illness, permanent disability, or even death. According to experts, strong evidence indicates that the upsurge in reported cases of cancer, heart diseases, internal organ failures and other terminal ailments is partly traceable to the proliferation of adulterated food items, especially imported palm oil and fruits. Usually, some forms of adulteration are introduced into hitherto healthy food items or drinks when dealers employ dangerous chemicals as preservatives or as a means of forcing fruits to ripen unduly. It is a practice that is driven by greed and the quest for quick profits.
No doubt, the perpetrators of this crime are exploiting the glaring lapses in the regulatory supervision by the agency statutorily charged with keeping an eye on the quality of foods consumed in the country. Nigerians are, therefore, left at the mercy of dubious dealers in substandard and adulterated food items, with obvious long-time health implications for the consumers.
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control is the regulatory agency charged with the regulation and control of food product, manufacturing, importation, exportation, advertisement, sale and distribution in Nigeria. As a strategy for effective enforcement of the food laws, NAFDAC ensures that all food items consumed in Nigeria are registered. It is therefore assumed that any food item not so registered is illegal and unfit for human consumption.
What is NAFDAC’s record in protecting and promoting public health? Its product registration has not been very effective in checking the influx of substandard and adulterated food items into the country. In some cases, after NAFDAC might have subjected some items to laboratory tests and given its seal of approval, it has been discovered that, subsequently, manufacturers sometimes do not adhere strictly to the standards that earned them the initial approval. Even when NAFDAC embarks on random checks in factories and the open market, it is evident that it cannot completely rid the market of adulterated food items. This regulatory laxity is thus exploited by dubious sellers to flood the market with adulterated palm oil and other products.
Ordinarily, palm oil, an important cooking ingredient, has no harmful effect when consumed in moderation. It is credited with containing Vitamin A, which is useful in the prevention of night-blindness. But when spiked with poisonous chemicals by unscrupulous traders bent on maximising profit, palm oil becomes deadly. Chemicals such as Solvent Red 24, which are reportedly added to palm oil to improve the colour and make it more attractive to buyers, and chlorine, inadvertently, turn the commodity into a slow killer.
A report, quoting Ogbona Chimela, the Chief Dietician, Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, Ile-Ife, described chlorine as a bleaching agent that could cause peptic ulcer. “Palm oil is fatty in nature. Hence, if chlorine is mixed with it, palm oil could store such chemical for a long time, only to lead to health hazards later.” This poses a serious health danger to unsuspecting consumers.
A study by Kate Imafidon and Lucky Okunrobo of the University of Benin, published in the British Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, confirmed the links between those chemicals used in adulterated palm oil and ailments such as cancer and organ failures. These usually terminal ailments have become some of the greatest killers globally, Nigeria inclusive. For instance, the National Cancer Prevention Programme put the number of Nigerians that died of cancer annually at 80,000. Prostrate cancer, which usually attacks men, is reputed to be killing 14 men daily. A professor of food science and technology, Alfred Ihenkuronye, once said that over 200, 000 Nigerians die from food poisoning every year. The figure is quite alarming.
Although Nigeria was once the world’s main producer and exporter of palm oil, most of what is now consumed in the country is either imported or smuggled into the country, which makes the enforcement of standards much more challenging. But NAFDAC has a duty to increase its surveillance and presence in more places across the country. While it is commendable that the agency has been seizing and destroying adulterated palm oil across the country, reports of its proliferation in the market means more needs to be done. Nothing stops state and local governments from joining efforts with NAFDAC in improving responsive food regulation and monitoring of imported food items that are available for sale.
Besides, emphasis should be placed on strengthening of legislation to impose heftier punishment for offences of food adulteration, given the dangers it poses to human lives. Perhaps if people know that, when caught, they will not get away with a slap on the wrist, but face the full wrath of the law, they will think twice about palming off dangerous adulterated food items as genuine.