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Ponmo: When health risk outweighs nutrients

By Gbenga Akinfenwa and Paul Adunwoke
30 July 2023   |   4:20 am
In spite of repeated warnings by relevant agencies and health experts on the dangers of consuming Ponmo, a popular delicacy across the country, especially the South West, findings show that many Nigerians have continued to ignore the advisories.


• Using Tyres, Rubbers In Ponmo Processing Is Hazardous — Experts
• Consumption Can Cause Liver, Kidney, Heart Damage, Neurological Disorders — NAFDAC
• Ponmo Is Most Sought Meat Part By Majority Of My Customers — Meat Seller

In spite of repeated warnings by relevant agencies and health experts on the dangers of consuming Ponmo, a popular delicacy across the country, especially the South West, findings show that many Nigerians have continued to ignore the advisories.

Severally, the Federal Government, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), and health experts, among others, have issued stern warnings on the risk of consuming the delicacy.

Aside from having been proven to have no nutritive value as part of diets, Ponmo is said to constitute grave health hazards, among other risks, to its consumers due to some bad processing methods employed by butchers and other players in its trade chain, especially at abattoirs.

One of such processing methods involves the usage of used tyres, plastic and other substances to burn the hide, which makes it unsafe for human consumption. In addition to this, there is often the circulation of ‘toxic ponmo’ that have been pre-treated with industrial chemicals and find their way into the market.

Disturbingly, the majority who cannot do without the delicacy, according to medical experts, may be putting their lives on the line in the process.

NAFDAC Director General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, recently said investigations revealed that unscrupulous businessmen and traders were now diverting animal hides meant for industrial use into the food chain for consumption.

She disclosed that some of the animal hides are sometimes pre-treated with industrial chemicals, which are not of food grade and are toxic and injurious to human health.

She revealed that some companies legally import hides from countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, while majority of the products are smuggled into the country through the porous borders.

“The imported animal hides are meant for industrial use by leather industries for the manufacturing of items such as shoes, bags, belts and others. Health hazards inherent in the consumption of such animal hides include risk of liver, kidney and heart damage, increased risk of Aplastic anaemia, central nervous system toxicity, cancer and more.

“Livestock farmers are advised to note that industrial animal hides could not be used in the manufacture of animal feed. Associated chemicals are generally stored in the tissues of animals that are fed with feed made with industrial animal hides and will eventually end up in humans when consumed, with the attendant effects,” she added.

Some health experts who spoke to The Guardian aver that using tyres and any form of rubbers to process ponmo has been linked to cancer and other serious health issues. They added that “when tyres and rubbers are used to burn ponmo, they give dioxin and when dioxins go into the meat, they lead to cancer.”

Some of them noted that ponmo roasted with tyres could also expose consumers to cancer of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), among other health challenges, due to the chemical contamination from the tyre.

Abuja-based medical doctor, a Public Health physician and health promotion specialist, Dr. Obinna Ebirim, said there are health challenges associated with ponmo consumption when roasted with old car tyres, noting that it poses significant health risks due to the release of harmful chemicals and toxins.

“When tyres are used as fuel for roasting, they produce hazardous fumes, carbon monoxide, and oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, bad compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and heavy metals like zinc, arsenic, and mercury. These substances can contaminate the cow skin, making it unsafe for consumption,” he said.

He explained that PAHs are known to be carcinogenic, and prolonged exposure to them can increase the risk of various cancers, including lung, bladder, and skin cancer. “VOCs can lead to respiratory problems and neurological issues, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly,” he added.

He said poisoning by heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury, are toxic and can accumulate in the body over time, causing neurological damage and other health problems.

“Thus, the consumption of ponmo roasted with tyres may result in acute or chronic health issues, including respiratory disorders, skin problems, digestive disturbances, and long-term complications like cancer and neurological disorders.”

To ensure the safety of ponmo as food, Ebirim said it is essential to use proper cooking methods. “The best ways to prepare it for consumption include boiling cow skins in water. It is an effective method of eliminating harmful substances and softening the skin. Boiling also helps to remove excess fat and impurities, making the ponmo healthier for consumption.”

He said if roasting with fuel is preferred, it is crucial to use clean fuel sources such as cooking gas, electricity, or clean-burning fuels like charcoal or clean wood. “These methods produce fewer harmful emissions compared to old car tyres and reduce the risk of chemical contamination,” he added.

He said cooking with spices and herbs is another solution, adding that spices and herbs during the cooking process not only enhance the flavour but can also provide additional health benefits. “Certain herbs and spices have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may counteract potential harmful effects.”

A lecturer in the Department of Community Health and Primary Healthcare, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Dr. Olufela Ezekiel Oridota, also re-echoed the fears expressed by NAFDAC, saying that consuming animal hides meant for industrial use could cause health hazards such as liver, kidney and heart damage.

THE warnings against ponmoconsumption came to the fore in the last few weeks basically due to the outbreak of Anthrax diseases, a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Anthrax is a severe disease caused by the bacteria – Bacillus anthracis. It can affect both humans and animals, including wild animals and livestock such as cows, pigs, camels, sheep, goats and others.

The bacteria, which exists as spores, can be found in the soil, wool, or hair of infected animals. Anthrax spores are resistant to extreme conditions and can survive in the soil or environment for decades, making controlling or eradicating the disease very difficult.

The disease, previously recorded in neighbouring countries in the West African sub-region – northern Ghana bordering Burkina Faso and Togo, found its way into the country with the confirmation of an outbreak in a farm in Niger State.

THOUGH experts say Ponmo has little dietary benefit when consumed, The Guardian survey in markets and food joints in Lagos, showed that the ponmo-market is the most sought ‘protein’ currently, hence the boom in sales, with the traders making brisk business.

The boom, according to investigations, is due to its price, as a piece of Ponmo can be purchased for as low as N50. This, many have embraced as substitute to fish, meat and turkey, as their prices have galloped in the last two months.

A meat seller at the Oko Oba abattoir, who gave his name simply as Baba Gani, disclosed that the cow-hide is one of the most sought meat parts by majority of his customers. He added that the current economic crunch has increased patronage and request for the product.

“It’s actually the cheapest of the meat parts, I think that’s the main reason a lot of meat lovers are rushing it. Though there are warnings about the animal disease, coupled with health risk associated with its processing, I must say the patronage has not reduced. One other thing I would like to say is that the processing of the ponmo here is safe for consumption,” he said.

It was learnt that the ‘new found love’ for Ponmo is not unconnected with the current food inflation across the country, worsened by the fuel price hike that has caused untold hardship for Nigerians.

A visit to some of the abattoirs and slaughters in Lagos and Ogun states, confirmed the awkward processing practices. At the Cele abattoir, along the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, a section where ponmo, cow leg and tail are processed appears to be the dirtiest. Thick, black soot from the use of car tyres used to remove hair from animal skins bellowed from the flank when The Guardian arrived there.

It was observed that aside from tyres, spoilt shoes, plastic, oily substances, firewood and other unknown substances were also used in roasting the cowhides.

Though the Matori abattoir around Mushin in Lagos, seemed organised, but the same practice was witnessed during the visit. Black smelly smoke was a feature permeating the area where the cowhide was being processed.

At the popular Oko-Oba Abattoir and Lairage Complex, Oko-Oba, Agege, the practice seems to have stopped. During the visit, a section outside the abattoir facility, near Agric road where the cowhides and horns are burnt was deserted, but for some scavengers seen around the flank.

One of the butchers approached by The Guardian, who revealed that the practice has stopped in the abattoir, said butchers are currently using hot water and blade to remove hair from the cowhides .

In Ogun State, a popular slaughter along the Solu-Alaja road is also in the practice of using tyres and other unwholesome materials in the processing of ponmo. Aside from the use of these items, the section used for the processing is not only dirty, but close to the area where cow feaces and animal wastes are deposited, with flies having a field day.

From the processing facilities visited, The Guardian observed that aside from the unpleasant processing methods, the Ponmo processors, traders and buyers also risk serious health implications, as they breathed noxious gases.

A middle-aged woman, Mrs. Romoke Adedun, a resident of Pleasure area of Lagos State, told The Guardian that though there have been warnings against the consumption of ponmo, the price of the product has endeared it to many people who see it as alternative to fish, turkey and meats that have already gone beyond the reach of the common man.

“I still buy and consume ponmo; it is only God that protects. The prices of meat and fish have gone up, yet we are being warned not to eat ponmo, what do we eat then?, she asked.

DEPUTY Director, Clinical Nutritionist and Dietitian, Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital Complex (OAUTHC), Ile Ife, Osun State, Dr. Ogbonna Obinna Chimela, gave some insight on the best and healthy way to prepare ponmo.

“Follow the following steps, which include getting a fresh skin (hide), spreading it on a slab, pouring boiled water (100°C) on it and immediately scraping its surface with knife or any convenient object to remove the hair. You would discover that the hair on the skin would give way. You will be left with a healthy skin, which you could cut into sizes and boil into a tenderised form as ponmo,” he said.

Chimela stated that the colour would not be brownish like the conventional ponmo. “Most often, it is the burning with tyre that creates that usual brownish colour on the regular ponmoyou get from the market.”

He said another method is the use of firewood in conjunction with kerosene or petrol in preparing (burning) the skin, then scraping it with knife and washing with water and soap.

He said ponmo does not really contain other beneficial nutrients except for the fact that it serves as roughage and creates bulkiness of the stool. “Hence, it assists in reducing the transit time and in conjunction with other fibres could prevent constipation.”

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