How safe are the food Nigerians consume?

How safe are the food Nigerians consume?

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Zainab Sadiq, who sells fruits and vegetables in Ketu Market, Lagos, needed to supply 20 bunches of ripe plantains and bananas daily to customers who buy in bits to resell.

But she only got five bunches of ripe plantain and bananas from her suppliers. To meet up with the high demand daily from customers, she resorted to applying calcium carbide to force ripening of the fruits.

Apart from selling it to customers, Sadiq also consumes the plantain and bananas with her family. She is unaware of the health dangers in the consumption of such fruits and vegetables.

“My family also consumes some of the plantain and bananas I sell,” the trader said, when BusinessDay interacted with her.

Sadiq’s case gives an insight into how traders and farmers in Nigeria have continued to ignorantly use harmful chemicals in the storage, colouring, ripening, processing, and preservation of food products in the country, which is a major threat to Nigerians health.

Also, traders and farmers use other chemicals which include artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame, sniper, monosodium glutamate, common dyes, sodium sulphite, common dyes, rat poison and sulphur additives.

Others are sodium ascorbate, citric acid, sodium citrate, artificial favourings, zinc and lactic acid, among others.

Health experts say such practices are dangerous to human health and should be out-rightly banned. Many of the preservatives and storage agents are carcinogenic as they cause cancer and death, while others can cause depression or damage to body organs.

“The chemicals being applied by traders and farmers to preserve and force ripening of fruits and vegetables have serious health implications when consumed for a long period of time,” said Doyin Odubanjo, chairman, Association of Public Health Physicians, Lagos chapter.

“The side effects are responsible for the rising cases of cancer, skin disorders, kidney diseases as we have now in the country because Nigerians consume these food products daily,” Odubanjo said.

To identify food products that have these harmful chemicals, the nutritionist advised Nigerians to discard any fruits or vegetables with odd taste when consuming them.

Similarly, Some Nigerian abattoirs roast meat with tyres and pet bottles which medical experts say is dangerous and should be discouraged.

The European Union (EU) had in 2016 rejected 24 food products from Nigeria. Groundnuts were rejected because they contained aflatoxin, while palm oil had a colouring agent that was carcinogenic.

The European Food Safety Authority had likewise rejected beans from Nigeria in 2015 because it contained between 0.03mg per kg and 4.6mg/kg of dichlorvos pesticide, when the acceptable maximum residue limit was 0.01mg/kg.

The ban had been extended to 2019, indicating that Nigerian food processors and exporters are yet to change from such practice.

Experts are wondering whether food that is not good for Europe or the Americas could be good for consumption by Nigerians.

“We do not have regard for what we eat in Nigeria because the government that is supposed to monitor and ensure that standards are met, not just for export but also for local consumption, is lacking in this area,” said  Oluremi Keshinro, professor of nutrition and dietetics, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB).

“Most of the chemicals found in our crops that are rejected by the EU are dangerous to various organs of the body. These chemicals are injurious to the body and can cause terminal diseases. It is time for us to start taking our health seriously because what we eat determines our health status,” Keshinro said.

In 2017, the Mycotoxicology Society of Nigeria (MSN) conducted a research on 2,133 samples of grain crops in the country and found that only 19.3 percent of the crops were safe for consumption because of the presence of some poisonous chemical compound called mycotoxins.

Mycotoxins are natural poisonous chemical compound produced by certain fungi that cannot be easily detected by looking or tasting.

There are five groups of mycotoxins which are: aflatoxins, ochratoxins, fumonisins, deoxynivalenol and zearalenone that are found in most of Nigeria’s grains and cereals.

“Mycotoxins have very harmful effects on human and animal health. They are very cancerous and supresses the human immune system,” Hussaini Makun, a professor of biochemistry, Federal University of Technology, Minna, who conducted a study on the fungi, said.

He noted that mycotoxins are poisonous chemical compounds produced by certain fungi/moulds that are threats to food and feed for human and animal consumption with regards to long- term poisoning and thus, constitute challenge to agriculture and food security.

Makun stated that these food toxics cannot be easily detected by looking at or tasting foods because of their colourless, odourless and tasteless nature, stating that they can only be detected by Enzyme Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay (ELISA).

Experts say contamination of food and feeds arising from naturally occurring toxicants, microbiological contaminants, chemical contaminants such as additives used above the permitted levels, pesticide and veterinary residues in food or as toxic components from food processing could have deleterious effects in humans and animals.

A recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to mark the firs-ever global food safety day states that households in low- and middle-income economies spend $15billion on medical expenses yearly.

The report stressed that most of the health burdens and economic loss could be avoided with proper management of food and food products and appropriate hygiene by producers and consumers.

In like manner, FAO has raised alarm over the worrisome levels of high food contamination in Lagos and Kano – Nigeria’s two most populous states, in a study it conducted recently.

Poor regulation and knowledge fuel use

Experts have blamed the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and other regulatory agencies for failing in carry out their duties as regulators, saying such act is fuelling use of these harmful chemicals.

They also blame poor farmers’ knowledge and greed by some players in the agricultural value chains as factors fuelling the usage of such harmful chemicals.

“The Federal Government is lacking in the area of food safety in the country and the situation is getting worst daily. There are no regulations on the use of agro chemicals and pesticides on the farms; even products banned in other countries are found in the hands of farmers in Nigeria,” James Marsh, managing director, James Marsh and Associates, said.

Marsh, a food safety expert, blamed regulators such as the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (FMARD), for failing in regulating the use of these harmful chemicals.

“The regulators are not regulating the use of these chemicals effectively to ensure the consumption of safe and nutritious food. The regulation starts from the farms,” he says.

He called for the education framers and traders and their sensitisation on the effect of these harmful chemicals.

For addressing the problem of naturally occurring mycotoxins, he urged the government to train farmers on good agricultural practices. He also called for proper regulation in the importation of agro chemicals and pesticides into the country.

Isaac Ogara, secretary, MSN and a lecturer at the department of Agronomy, Nasarawa State University, said that the mycotoxins content in crops can be reduced by mainstreaming control strategies in the country’s farming systems along the value chain.

“Farmers need to have awareness that there are deadly chemical substances that occur naturally without their knowing. One of the strategies that farmers can use to  protect their crops from these toxins is harvesting their crops early. Harvesting early helps to reduce the incidence of mycotoxins,” Ogara said.

“Farmers must also ensure that they carry out good farming practices by ensuring that they carry out all the cultivation practices according to recommendations and dry their crops properly. Crops must be properly dried with moisture content of about 12-14 percent,” he added.

He also stated that the use of Neem tree and Jatropha extracts also helps to reduce levels of mycotoxins in foods. He noted that the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) had developed a product called aflasafe, which farmers can adopt to reduce the occurrence of the toxicogenic fungi.

If governments at all levels and the regulatory agencies continue to fail in ensuring that Nigerians consume safe and healthy food, the country will record high number of food-borne diseases and lose billions of dollars in the treatment of the illnesses, with many lives lost in the process.

Josephine Okojie

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