What is inside the pack…?

Experts and ordinary Nigerians worry about how their foods and medicines are being packed by food processors.

Titilayo Odunfa, 32, has been a night nurse for the past five years in a private clinic in Lagos. Blessed with three young children and a husband who is not interested in employing the services of a nanny, Odunfa always has her hands full trying to keep her family’s body and soul together. Even though a trained nurse, she preferred to run her cosmetics shop full-time and work part-time as a night nurse. One night, Odunfa was at work as usual and felt hungry. The cafeteria where she usually bought her food had closed for the night, and so she decided to buy fried yam and akara just across the street. ‘I noticed that the food vendor’s shop was straddled over a stinking gutter and people were eating right there. When it got to my turn to be served, she just picked up a piece of paper from among the many sheets lying on the floor around her, and packed the fried yam and akara for me. I know the implications of eating food packed with that kind of paper, and that was why I decided to go hungry that night instead of exposing myself to the germs that might inhabit those pieces of papers’, she said.

But not everybody is a nurse like Odunfa. Emmanuel Olakayo, a dealer in unsold newspapers, in Oregun, Lagos, told the magazine that these newspapers spend months stored in damp and dirty warehouses from where they are retailed to food vendors. ‘Before we buy them, a lot of them are usually covered in dust because of the time they had spent in the store houses’, Olakayo said.

The mode of packing of foods and drinks is not the only thing that worries most Nigerians. If some foods and drinks are badly packed, others carry untrue claims of their actual contents. Only recently did the deadly impact of that trend stare everyone in the face with the death of 83 children from the My Pikin saga, syrup supposedly a teething mixture but which was actually a dangerous chemical. Apart from foods like suya, and akara and yam bought over stinking gutters particularly in Lagos, ‘pure water’ and most bottled drinks and liquids are also potential killers. Mallam Idris, a meiguard in Anthony Village who sells stuff, buys those sachets in bags. Like most retailers of pure water, Idris leaves them outside near his shed on the street, come rain come shine. Another area that is causing some concern is with the processing and packing of agege bread. Malachy Nnamdi, a Lagosian told the magazine, ‘If you visit bakeries where agege bread is processed, you may not want to touch that commodity again. Some workers wipe off their sweaty arms into the dough when mixing it, arguing that the heat from the oven will kill all the germs. Most have no labels on them. A lot of them are hawked in open spaces beside the woman selling akara by the gutter’.

Other drinks like bottled water, malt drinks and bitter lemon which are processed by big multinationals also pose more grave dangers as much as the sachet water on the street. Rotimi Akintude, an engineer, said he travelled to a remote village in Ghana in 2008, for the internment of his friend’s father and was served malt drinks that had a 2005 expiry date on them. ‘I was lucky to have been curious to read the label on that drink’, he said. More than that, it is the health implication in taking some of these drinks that worry some people. A lab scientist, at HELP! Immunoassay, in Lagos who craved anonymity said that ‘ the point must be made, that consumption of drinks with high sugar content exposes people to arthritis, obesity, and liver problems’. There are rife allegations that some ‘soft drinks’ in the market have as much as 12 cubes of sugar in them as part of the materials used for their preparation. Most Nigerians like Bola Agidi, a cook in a guest house in Lagos told this reporter magazine that the sugar content in bottles of malt and soft drinks do not worry him. ‘It’s the gas used to preserve these drinks that I’m afraid of’, he said.

Many Nigerians worry concerning the content and labels of the foods they buy from the market. In recent times, the numbers of people who have hurried to the john after eating some meals at some fast food outfits continue to increase. Faith Anikwenwa, a marketing executive with Technologies Distribution, TD, told the magazine that she has stopped taking meals prepared in fast food joints because of her running battle with diarrhea. According to Anikwenwa, ‘a lot of these people are merely interested in making a profit. They seem to keep recycling old food from their shelves that should’ve been thrown away or fed to dogs’, she said. Raphael Ene, formerly a manager with one of the fastest growing fast food outfits in Lagos told the magazine that after having worked in a fast food outfit, he would not risk his life by eating in any one of them. ‘About 99 percent of these of these outfits prepare their stew, rice, fish chicken, rice, porridge with large doses of saccharin, a substance with a suspicious adverse effect on human health. What you see in the cosy room where customers eat is a stark contrast to the kitchens where the meals are prepared. They use cheap ingredients, cheap labour and make their employees work long hours’, he said. Perhaps to attract more customers, some proprietors are alleged to have the extra mile to import their seasoning and condiments from Asia. Agu said that using these kinds of condiments to prepare African meals have the potential to harm people not used to such condiments. Saccharin is allegedly present in condiments like Mama Cass, Ajinomoto and many seasonings in the market. It is used instead of sugar, especially by people interested in losing weight. In 1995, average worldwide consumption of saccharine was more than 100million pounds. Experts say that one reason why most fast food operators prefer to use saccharine in 90 per cent of their meals is that it very cheap. A dollar worth of saccharine will do the same job as $20 worth of sugar. A write-up in The British Medical Journal by Cleave T.L who is a doctor, insists that appendicitis is rare in African villages but common in the urban areas because of the consumption of westernized diets particularly by the rich and upwardly mobile. ‘Irritation and cancer of the colon, unpleasant odour in stool, urinary tract infections, and appendicitis are some of the common diseases that go with eating a lot of saccharine in processed foods’, Cleave said. However, the director of the United States, US, National Centre for Toxicological Research of the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, states that the supposed cancer risk of the carbohydrate that saccharine replaces are several times greater than the cancer risk of saccharine. But one other seasoning being used in some cuisines in most fast food joints is Vedan, monosodium glutamate, manufactured in Taiwan with NAFDAC registration number 01-0296, is allegedly a bleaching substance. A Bob MajiriOghene Communications investigation reveals that monosodium glutamate, its vital ingredient, is made from sugar cane and is also the basic ingredient in the noodles and spaghetti market. Nutritionists insist that regular consumption of foods prepared with monosodium glutamate, including foreign kinds of condiments increases the user’s chances of contracting and dying of cancer.

Christiana Obiazikwor, principal public relations officer, PPRO, National Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, Lagos, said that the agency’s mandate does not extend beyond food processing. According to the NAFDAC spokesperson, NAFDAC had done a lot in safeguarding lives by sometimes going beyond its oversight functions to ensure that correct labeling and pr

ocessing of foods and drugs. ‘For instance, whenever water is stored in little containers for a long time, it becomes weak and unsafe for consumption. ‘We have done our best trying to get pure water make processors of drinks like pure water carry an expiry date on their products but most of them hardly comply’, she said. Information from NAFDAC, Lagos indicate that even though the body works round the clock to scrutinize both content and label of local and international foods, drinks and drugs, it has become the butt of public criticism, particularly with the exit of its erstwhile director general, Dora Akinyuli. Under Akinyuli, NAFDAC was seen by all to have taken bold steps to sanitize the kind of foods and drugs that entered the country. But toward the end of her tenure as DG, speculations were rife that she had become soft, particularly with an attempt on her life in 2007. Most are worried that the new man at the helm may not wield the kind of charisma that his predecessor wielded.

In other lands, processing and packing of food is done under strict supervision from government agencies. An agency such as the United States, US, Food and Drug Administration, FDA, does not endorse any company that processes food or the manner of its processes. It regularly issues recalls of certain products through the internet, and public address systems to the general public. Recently, it issued a nationwide recall of certain foods produced from Salmonella, and J&J Snack Foods, a company in the US, issued a Nationwide Recall of 13 frozen peanut butter cookie dough. On September 2, 2008 it issued a warning to Albert Batshon, president Jerusalem Manufacturing Natural Foods & Wholesalers, Inc. When FDA inspectors said they were through with their inspection, between March 12 and April 17, 2008, they said they found out that their sample analysis and label review violated provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (the Act) and FDA regulations in Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR). ‘Your Jerusalem brand Pita Bread, Spelt Wheat Free, is manufactured with spelt, which is Triticum spelta L. The term “wheat” in section 201(qq) of the Act means any species in the genus Triticum. Thus, for purposes of section 201(qq), wheat includes grains such as spelt. Your Jerusalem brand Pita Bread, Spelt Wheat Free, is further misbranded under section 403(a)(1) of the Act [21 U.S.C. 343(a)(1)] in that its labeling is false and misleading. The label for the Jerusalem Pita Bread contains the statement “SPELT WHEAT FREE” on the principal display panel. This statement falsely claims that this product does not contain wheat; however, as explained above, this product contains spelt, * which is a species of wheat’, part of the warning said. Food processing companies in the US and many European countries pay special attention to labeling of their products. They give precise details of the composition of what a tin or pack of food contains, thereby giving the consumer the benefit of choice, and takes into account their health concerns.

Consumer protection council, CPC, an organ of the Federal government of Nigeria is saddled with the responsibility of protecting the rights of Nigerians in getting their money’s worth of the goods and products they consume. It says it embarks on enforcement activities to ensure that goods displayed in Nigerian markets have desired levels of wholesomeness, safety, quality, standard and quality. Officials said that they ensure that they try to observe standards set by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria ‘through our physical examinations’. It also said that it regulates information on labels and packs on drinks ‘guided by international best practices’, and that ‘SON Standards, NAFDAC Regulations, Codex Alimentarius Committee requirements, CPC Regulations, among others’, guides it in determining the kind of information that should be on foods and drinks produced locally and internationally. In spite of all this however, Nigerians are still at the mercy of foods and drinks packed with scant information concerning what they drink and swallow.

Written by
MajiriOghene Bob Etemiku
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