Ensuring food fortification in Nigeria
Fortification simply means the addition of vitamins and minerals to food products to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
Fortified foods, therefore, help to fill in the nutritional gaps in a diet, thereby underscoring its importance.
Also known as food enrichment, it is done to address micronutrient deficiencies across populations, countries and regions.
While governments, in partnership with industries, international agencies and non-governmental organisations, have used this method to help reduce and eliminate micronutrient deficiencies in their populations.
The global statistics, which justifies the need for food fortification, is alarming, with about two billion people said not to have enough micronutrients like iron and vitamin A; a greater number among them living in the developing economies.
It also shows that the world’s most widespread nutritional disorder, which is iron deficiency, has been rated as a global epidemic, with an estimated 468 million non-pregnant women and 293 million children identified as suffering from anaemia yearly.
However, in Nigeria, owing to bad nutrition, seven per cent of the children population are said to die before five years, a greater number of which are in the poorer northern part of the country.
These realities must have informed the recent nationwide raiding of markets for non-fortified foods by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), in fulfillment of its mandate as it concerns the health and general wellbeing of Nigerians and other residents in the country.
Significantly, SON’s renewed efforts at ensuring food fortification in the country was a demonstration of its sincerity of purpose to a recent stakeholders’ pledge, officially described as a “Commitment”- to ensuring food fortification in the country at the Nigerian Food Processing and Nutritional Leadership Forum.
At the forum, which had Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Aliko Dangote Foundation and leading industrial and other big firms represented, Bill Gates said his foundation was donating $5 million over four years to implement a rigorous testing regime to ensure standards were being met, just as government representatives, including SON, pledged to enforce the existing standards and to target reaching near-full fortification within two years.
The forum actually pledged a collective action to achieve adequate fortification of Nigeria’s major food staples by 2020.
Aliko Dangote, said the “Initiative to tackle malnutrition is a welcome development,” while expressing delight that the government had recently become more aware of malnutrition and the need to address it.
Some of the stakeholders at the meeting, including Flour Mills of Nigeria, PZ Wilmar, Golden Oil and the BUA Group, pledged to “achieve 100 per cent compliance” with the food fortification standards by 2020 as agreed.
They promised to include updates in their efforts in this regard in their annual reports.
Justifying the recent nationwide raid therefore, the Director-General of SON, Osita Aboloma, said it was in line with both the present administration’s and international organisation’s food fortification programme at ensuring Nigerians have access to basic nutrients and vitamins for health and development.
Aboloma pledged the organisation’s commitment to improving the regulatory environment around food fortification, promising to review potential impediments to greater fortification, as well as increase enforcement and incentive mechanisms.
He disclosed that SON was currently working with the National Agency for Food, Drugs, Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Consumer Protection Council (CPC) and international partners to ensure that the fortification programme of the present administration is a success.
The Director-General stressed that failing to address malnutrition would continue to negatively impact not only the health and wellbeing of Nigerians, but the country’s economic growth and prosperity.
He, however, advised Nigerians to always look out for the quality symbols before purchasing food items for consumption, saying that the fight against substandard goods in the country is a collective effort.
The organisation’s Director, Compliance, Mr Bede Bayi, who supervised the exercise conducted simultaneously in the nation’s six geo-political zones, said: “We have decided to go all out to ensure that the standards for flour, pasta, sugar and salt (food fortified products) meet the minimum requirements.
“After being consumed by Nigerians, we must get the quality nutrients we deserve.
Children and women suffer malnutrition when these food items are not certified.
Lack of fortification of food also leads to stunted growth; and this is why these fortified foods have been supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) to ensure that Nigerians grow like others in other parts of the world.”
He added: “These food vehicles have been carefully selected because they are food items consumed by every Nigerian.
These products are smuggled into the Nigerian markets, and this is why our Inspectorate and Compliance department is all out to ensure that wherever these products are being smuggled into in the country, we do the needful.
“We are conducting massive evacuation so that they do not find their way into the Nigerian market. We are targeting all the entry points.
We have our officers in market places to ensure that Nigerians are protected from these unfortified foods.”
Meanwhile, experts have described SON’s latest initiative as timely, stressing that the consequences of non-fortified foods are enormous, and canvassing that all stakeholders must support the food fortification drive nationwide.
According to a gyneacologist and Chief Medical Director of Fellowship Hospital, Ikeja, Lagos, Dr S.C Ozokwelu, “The occurrence of some diseases that are not familiar before may not be unconnected with the fact that many people take food products that they are not supposed to take.
That may also explain the rising cases of kidney disease and other organs of the body. Even water has standards.”
The essence of fortification, he explained, is to add minerals and other essential ingredients into a food product, depending on what the needs are.
According to Ozokwelu, “A new born baby, for instance, is highly selective of the nutrients required for his development.
So, a pregnant woman must avoid any food intake that is bad for the baby’s development.
“The problem with some manufacturing outfits is that their focus is on sales and not on the wellbeing of consumers.
And another problem is that we don’t even have fresh fruits in abundant quantity as required, because farming is dying while the population keeps increasing.”
The medical practitioner warned Nigerians from arbitrary consumption of energy drinks, many of which he said contained excess caffeine.
“Yes, they may have energy after drinking, but that may be short-lived even as excess caffeine is deposited in the body,” he warned.
He stressed that collaborative efforts were required in the task, which SON and other regulatory agencies were doing.
“Let’s all join hands with SON to get rid of unfortified food products. We must all educate people on the gravity of what they are doing. Even pastors can include this in their sermons,” he said.
To an analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “SON should be commended for living up to its responsibility.
Many Nigerians simply buy food products without bothering on fortification.
So, while the need to educate consumers and ensure sustained awareness is not in doubt, efforts like SON’s should be encouraged because some people are simply wicked and only concerned about profit and will never do the right thing while endangering the lives of others.”
To another health expert, food fortification is also essential because some minerals and vitamins in a food product can be destroyed through food preservation.
He added that some food products also require fortification because they may not contain enough quantity of essential vitamins and minerals.
To a physiotherapist, Mrs Adebimpe Aturu of Ikeja General Hospital, it is difficult to directly link the intake of unfortified food products to physiological problems.
“But, what is clear is that the intake of unhealthy food items, like too much of fatty foods for instance, will generally affect wellbeing and make one unhealthy. Even fortified food product, like salt for instance, has to be taken in reasonable quantity.
So, what we take will affect our weight and our body generally, and if you take the wrong thing, you can’t be healthy.”
However, an optician, Dr Ijeoma, said she would only rely on the result of research before agreeing that unfortified food products can affect the eyes.
What is clear, therefore, is that a lot more care is required about whatever is consumed because of their health implications.
SON is, therefore, on the right track for its resolve at helping Nigerians to make right choices of food products rather than being exposed to just buying and taking whatever is offered for sale in the market.
As experts have advised, however, the enormous and essential task of food fortification should be embraced by all Nigerians, rather than being seen as SON’s or relevant stakeholders’ responsibilities alone.
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