How residents ‘kill thirst’ with unsafe beverages
Shola Adewale was very thirsty as she moved around the popular Oshodi Market, where she had visited to pick up some textile materials for her children who will be resuming school soon.
After making several stops at many shops, she felt hydrated hence the need to quench her thirst, not just with any liquid, but with something nutritious. So, she beckoned on a lady vending locally produced drinks in unbranded bottles.
Pronto, Adewale emptied the content of the bottle into her throat with gusto, a reflection of how thirsty she was.
About two hours later and back at her residence in the Mazamaza area of Lagos, Adewale visited the loo in quick successions twice. Still feeling unwell, she ended up in a hospital where a medical test revealed that she consumed contaminated food, which happened to be the beverage that she had at the market.
Considering the number of unbranded locally made beverages produced under unhygienic environments and served in discarded one-use plastic bottles, Adewale is not the only one that has suffered this fate.
It is a known fact that some of those who package alcoholic and nonalcoholic brews in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles better known as PET bottles sourced some of these containers from roadsides, thrash bins, and sometimes incinerators, where the bottles would have come in contact with contaminated ingredients.
With the country grappling with a high unemployment rate due largely to limited spaces and opportunities in paid employment, many now look at entrepreneurship as a way out of the labour market.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBC), as of the Fourth Quarter of 2020, the country‘s unemployment rate stood at 33.3 per cent. Also, in its latest report, KPMG stated that the unemployment rate had increased to 37.7per cent in 2022, and will further rise to 40.6per cent due to the continuing inflow of job seekers into the job market.
In its report tagged “KPMG Global Economy Outlook report H1 2023,” it said that unemployment would continue to be a challenge due to the slower-than-required economic growth, and the inability of the economy to absorb the 4-5 million new entrants into the Nigerian job market every year.
For some housewives, unemployed and fresh graduates, who want to make their way out of the unemployment pool, setting up businesses that include locally packaged beverages has come in handy.
While some have standardised their offerings, including getting necessary approvals from appropriate regulatory agencies, others are operating illegally.
Most of those in this category are the ones that make use of pet bottles, including using discarded containers.
Beyond the containers, in which these beverages are served, many have argued that the conditions under which they are produced and packaged are most likely unhygienic hence the products are susceptible to contamination.
Food technologists have equally argued that unsafe food containing harmful levels of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemical or physical substances make people sick, causing acute or chronic illnesses resulting from more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancers, permanent disability, or even death.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 600 million – almost one in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food, resulting in a global annual burden of 33 million disability-adjusted life years, and 420 000 premature deaths.
WHO noted that unsafe food disproportionately affects vulnerable groups in society, particularly infants, young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people.
“Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are the most affected, with an annual estimated cost of US$ 110 billion in productivity losses, trade-related losses, and medical treatment costs due to the consumption of unsafe food.”
The world health body also estimated that by 2050, 10 million lives will be at risk, and a cumulative US$ 100 trillion will be lost due to the impact of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) if no proactive solutions are taken.
It further noted that nutrition and food safety are closely interlinked and are essential for achieving positive health outcomes from food systems, arguing that food must be safe, available, accessible, nutritious, culturally acceptable, and ingested regularly for growth, health, and wellbeing.
In its 2019 report, the World Bank Group estimated that the economic costs of unsafe food, measured in terms of illness, disability, and premature deaths induced by unsafe food led to productivity losses of about US$ 95 billion a year in Low and Medium Income Countries (LMICs).
“In addition, the annual cost of treating foodborne illnesses was estimated to be US$ 15 billion.,” the report stated, concluding that unsafe food undermines food and nutritional security, human development, the broader food and agriculture economy, and international trade.
“Unsafe food increases infection and intoxication, creating a vicious cycle of disease, malnutrition, and disability, particularly affecting vulnerable groups. Simply put, there is no food security and nutrition without food safety.”
While it is not always possible for government agencies with responsibilities for food safety to control all the drivers of change when strengthening food safety systems, WHO stressed that it is important to be aware of them so that they can be considered, and ideally managed, in the overall design of the system.
This, perhaps explains why stakeholders are demanding that national governments provide strong leadership in response to current and emerging food safety challenges to preserve the wellbeing of the people, especially those who may find themselves consuming such beverages.
An Associate Professor of Analytical/Environmental Chemistry at the University of Lagos, Dr. Temilola Oluseyi, warns that the chances of drinking contaminated drinks from reused pet bottles are very high.
“Sometimes, these bottles are picked up from waste disposal sites, garbage collection points, and roadsides among other unhygienic spots. They can pick up contaminants from these environments and transfer such into the new drinks kept in them.
“There are some microorganisms that simply washing and rinsing of those bottles will not remove and some organisms would have multiplied their colonies in the leftover of the previous content of such bottles.
“Sometimes, the bottles hold other contents apart from what was originally packaged in them. Some plastics could have been used to store chemicals, petrol, or human waste like urine, prior to their being reused,” he added.
Oluseyi noted that if the contaminants present in the bottles are biological like micro-organisms, there could be infections by enteric microorganisms, which could result in illnesses like typhoid, cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea, and food poisoning.
“It could also lead to other complex illnesses especially if the plastic held chemicals before being reused. Some people have died as a result of taking contents in bottles that were reused and contained toxic chemicals,” the academic warned.
Oluseyi added that apart from drinks, consumption of other food items in reused plastics like groundnut, chin-chin, and chips are common. “So it is not limited to drinks alone.”
She, therefore, called on the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to ban the sale of such items and promote effective recycling of plastics.
“There should be take-back policies governing plastics, especially pet bottles, instead of them getting into the waste stream where they are picked for such uses.”
She also suggested government minimizing the use of plastics generally, because the fewer plastics that are used, the less the waste in the environment.
Oluseyi advised consumers to avoid buying food and drink in such items, saying locally produced food and drinks should be sold in new plastic containers that are sealed and tamper-proof.
On her part, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Inyene Agro Processing Factory, Blessing Akpan, said that consuming beverages packaged in reused bottles has serious implications for the consumer, just as it poses a serious health danger to the consumer.
“A herpes carrier kissing a newborn baby on the mouth can pass this virus to the baby for life. Now, imagine that person drinking his beverage from a pet bottle, which is thrown away, picked up by a scavenger, and supplied to a local “zobo” drink manufacturer, who failed to properly clean the bottle, at least, before pouring a new content into it and selling same to the public.”
She stated that the effect of using reused pet bottles includes the risk of food poisoning, herpes Simplex Type 1 infection, and attendant unplanned medical expenses.
“NAFDAC has a big role to play in ensuring that all beverage drink manufacturers align with set manufacturing guidelines/practices during their registration process. NAFDAC must guide first-time producers on the standard operating procedures that they must follow.”
She suggested that the government should leverage media platforms like radio, television, and social media to sensitise the public with the right information they need to protect themselves from avoidable harm that can emanate from unsafe food packaging
Her views resonate with the WHO’s position that national food control systems play a pivotal role in protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in trade at both the national and global levels.
When governmental policies neglect food safety, it can result in high health, social, economic, and environmental costs that impede the achievement of the SDGs, the international body pointed out.
A nutritionist, Dr. Abimbola Odusote stated that bottles or even discarded papers used for repacking food remains an unhealthy option because such are not made for reuse as they can lead to the degradation of the food or drink.
“If the bottles are new and sealed, the concern should not only be on the quality of the drinks but also on the sterilisation process that the bottles went through before putting in the drinks. We should also be worried about how the bottles were stored, and in what kind of environment were they stored.
A dusty, rodent-filled environment has all its dangers, washing in water that is not safe has its dangers as well.”
This, to Odusote, is why there should be guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) provided to such micro-businesses. and it is the responsibility of the government to provide access to training on healthy food production practices.
“This is not about them paying high fees to get their processes inspected but starting by teaching them the right practices, even if they produce failure and from their kitchen. These trainings can be available online for free, or at minimum cost and every producer is encouraged to go learn and should have attained a minimum certification even before starting.”
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