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Task of Producing Quality Food for Better Health

By Eabian Odum
16 April 2015   |   3:50 pm
Travellers, in their thousands, who daily ply Nigerian roads are in good position to tell what negative impact mismanaging safe food rule could mean to public health. Being in transit and having need of meals to sustain them till they get to their various destinations opens them up to eating what is served in many roadside kiosks and canteens.
Street  food service in mostly unhygienic conditions still remains a risk to consumers

Street food service in mostly unhygienic conditions still remains a risk to consumers

Travellers, in their thousands, who daily ply Nigerian roads are in good position to tell what negative impact mismanaging safe food rule could mean to public health. Being in transit and having need of meals to sustain them till they get to their various destinations opens them up to eating what is served in many roadside kiosks and canteens.

A check on what goes on in backrooms and dish clean up sections of these bukas and restaurants leaves a lot to be desired. Dishwashing and final rinsing operations are very critical in the control of the load of harmful, disease-causing bacteria that finally gets to the food served in such plates. Many, due to unhygienic practice and lack of inspection by health officials do things with untold recklessness; plates are washed and rinsed in such a way that leaves the unsuspecting consumer with high risk of food-borne infection. For some, it takes only a few hours for the manifestation of food poisoning and the like; this is only an aspect of the issue.

Part of the health challenge that follows eating from infected plate and food is typhoid fever, a disease caused by microorganism known as Salmonella typhi. It spreads via water, food and infected food handlers. There are numerous other food borne infections.

Though it would be noted that lately, there has been growth in the number of more decent eateries, or so they seem, in many stopover towns and spots on the highway. That does not vouch for the hygienic state of foods prepared in those places.

Generally, consumers are apprehensive of standard of cleanliness of the restaurants, where they eat. It holds true for others in different parts of the country.

Broaching the subject of Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP), a tool to manage food safety risks, for an aspect of the nation’s meat industry activities is like playing music to a deaf-mute especially the preparation of what is popularly known as ponmo. Ponmo, in most cases roasted hides and skin of cattle and other ruminants, is a culinary delicacy cutting across many parts of the country.

According to a presentation by Dr. Ademola Raji, a deputy director of Animal Production and Husbandry Services in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, ponmo does not offer any nutritional benefit compared to eating fish and egg as it is made of collagen fibre, a very poor protein.

Since it is a part of the Nigerian diet, though efforts are being made to discourage consumers from its consumption, the method of preparation presents high risk to public health.

For instance, according to the director, research cited from the African Journal of Biochemistry Research in 2009 showed that the materials used roasting the item are various types of plastics and old motor tyres from which heavy contamination is introduced.

In Lagos and environs, samples of ponmo purchased reveal significant levels of lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. According to that study, mecury level as high as 6.7mg/kg was recorded, while an analysis of ‘black oil’ used as fuel to burn the hide/skin revealed lead content as high as 31.4mg.dm-3.

These poisonous contaminants find their way to the body and lead to the growing cases of organ diseases even among young people. “The lowest level of metals was usually found in hides processed through traditional method of boiling in water followed by shaving of the hair,” the report revealed.

With a population of about 170million and growth rate of 2.8 per cent that would double the figure before the middle of the century, the pressure of access to food has become immense. The reported cut in Nigeria’s food import bill by Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Minister of Agriculture from $11bn to $4.3bn last year translates to increase in local food production by about 20million metric tonnes. More food production also drives the need for safer food in the country as notched in the WHO 2015 agenda. This, in turn makes the 2015 World Health Food Day, with theme centred on ‘SafeFood’ quite apt in a country, where public health is ever on the front burner.

In Nigeria, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) are the major bodies charged with regulatory matters of safe food in the country.

Professor Babajide Elemo, a biochemist and food industry authority of Lagos State University (LASU) and former President, Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technologist (NIFST) said the subject of safe food is multi-dimensional. He said the country is on the right path refocusing on agriculture in the sense that in a couple of years, rice and other commodities would be in the export list.

However, Elemo said the country might not be able to compete in the international market if international standards and regulations are not adhered to, noting that this has been the bane. He observed that those involved in export of some food items such as melons, dried shrimps among several other items sometimes face rejection from countries they export to as a result of this.

Why, Elemo asked, is it easier for smaller countries like Ghana to package and export yam tuber to the US and difficult for Nigeria, the largest producer of yam in the world? Even with Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), Nigeria’s penetration with food items to parts of the world is very slow. He adduced that to the lack of adherence to safe food standards unlike some other countries, which have made better progress.

“Although we have platforms like NAFDAC and SON, but government has to encourage the producers and processors to buy into the Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP) and the ISO for food safety,” Elemo said.

Since food safety starts from the farm, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan undertook to show the way in improving the quality of maize, which hitherto has been ravaged by the blight of aflatoxin, a potential carcinogen from the fungus, Aspergillus flavus. It has robbed farmers of premium prices for their commodity and predisposed consumers to disease afflictions, but now, as the successful deployment of Aflasafe, a product that deals with the fungus, a template is now in place for wider use.

This is, but only a tiny part of a whole load of challenges confronting a nation that is a heavy consumer of maize as food and feed commodity.

As the institute’s AgResult’s Pilot Manager, Debo Akande revealed in a programme in Lagos, the product has been used in farms in the country to grow maize and also applicable to groundnut, another crop that is heavily susceptible to attack by the fungus, Aspergillus species.
The ultimate objective can be seen in the two-fold result of reducing aflatoxin contamination, providing safe food and lifting the economic status of the agribusiness investor, who can attract better prices.

As a policy framework, the World Health Organisation (WHO) seeks to address areas such as obsolete food regulation and weak law enforcement, weak food borne disease surveillance, inadequate food safety capacities, inadequate financial investments, lack of policy coherence among the different sectors, fragmented food control systems and the inability of small- and medium-scale producers to provide safe food.

Given the size of Nigeria and the stakeholders involved in creating the right environment for safe food, Elemo is displeased NAFDAC is still doing certain things the same old way, charging that it moved with the time.

“Government should do something urgently to get these agencies and professional bodies come in line with today’s practice. There are several bodies – Raw Material Research and Development Council (RMRDC), NAFDAC, SON and Nigerian Quarantine Services should have a coordinating unit (apex body), perhaps domiciled in the National Planning Ministry to synergise their activities and not necessarily duplicating functions,” Elemo said.

He was irked by the cat-and-mouse game between other scientists and pharmacists leaning on the fact that public analysts and NAFDAC that are under the Federal Ministry of Health, but their relationship has been less than desirable.

Food regulation, he stressed is different from that of drug and even veterinary drugs noting that “if we get the food regulation right, the human body would need less drugs if it gets safe and quality food.”

Professor Olu Odeyemi, environment expert, biodiversity farmer and microbiologist, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife is no less dissatisfied with the state of food safety and the role of government and its regulatory agencies. He said attention to safe food in the country leaves a lot to be desired adding that about 80 per cent of diseases people suffer from are contracted from unsafe food and water.

Odeyemi said a lot needed to be done in terms of analysing both processed and locally prepared food eaten in restaurants and fast food joints nationwide, wondering whether people should not stop to think of the content of our popular colas and soft drinks.

He noted that in 1985, when he made suggestions to the then military government to establish NAFDAC, the idea was that the various aspects of that mandate would be pursued fully. However, he said the agency is tilted more to drugs than food (and water) quality management.

The alternative, Odeyemi said should be the setting up of a Food Quality Control Agency to ensure that the quality of what we consume is in tandem with world standards. He said a full-fledged team of food scientists and technologists, biochemists, microbiologists and other scientists should take charge of sampling raw foods in markets, warehouses, silos, and cooked foods in hotels and restaurants as well as potable water control throughout the country.

Where government is bent on domiciling the food agency in NAFDAC, he said it should thoroughly be restructured and strengthened as an arm, noting that it must spread all over the country in its activities to guarantee the consumption of safe food and health wellbeing of the citizens.

It is long shot, but the nation’s health should be given top priority.