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 Soft drinks, benzoic acid and Nigerian regulators

By Simbo Olorunfemi
23 March 2017   |   3:24 am
As we all know, on account of the loopholes and laxity on the part of some of the regulators, a number of multinationals in Nigeria tend to get away with a lot they would not even dare dream of in other places.


As we all know, on account of the loopholes and laxity on the part of some of the regulators, a number of multinationals in Nigeria tend to get away with a lot they would not even dare dream of in other places. While some are experts at compromising the system, many simply take advantage of our lackadaisical attitude to the issue of standards, even when it comes to health and safety. It is no surprise that Nigeria has become a dumping ground for all sorts of inferior goods, fake products, e-waste and even toxic waste, simply because we are unable to secure our own interest, police our borders and take the issue of safety of the people seriously.

It is against that backdrop that I immediately took interest in the unprecedented judgment by Justice Adedayo Oyebanji, in the suit filed Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi Adebo, and his company, Fijabi Adebo Holdings Limited, against NBC Plc and NAFDAC. Reviewing excerpts from the judgment, I was particularly intrigued at the statement of defence by Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC), exonerating itself from responsibility on the grounds that its products were only meant for local distribution and consumption. I was particularly glad that Justice Oyebanji rebuffed that argument in these words: “It is imperative to state that the knowledge of the Nigeria Bottling Company that the products were not to be exported is immaterial to its being fit for human consumption. The court is in absolute agreement with the learned counsel for the claimants that soft drinks manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of colour or creed.”

But it was even the response from the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) after the story broke in the press that compelled my intervention on the matter, within hours, that was published by Premium Times. I had doubts about the logic in NBC’s argument that the singular reason why the standard for Benzoic acid level is lower in the United Kingdom was simply on account of its temperate climate. I could not make sense of why the level would be expected to be lower than in a tropical region. But being no expert, I could not push it further. I only queried that position and sought to know what the permissible standards are in other tropical countries like Nigeria so we can have a comparative analysis. I equally wondered aloud what the case must be like for countries exposed to different climatic conditions, asking if products there are region-specific in production and distribution.

But I became worried when I noticed that a few people who I would expect to be more scientifically-inclined than this layman increasingly weighed more on the side of the manufactures on the basis of what they claimed to be hard science, summarily dismissing the concerns raised by the judgment, with some even querying the competence of the learned Judge in this matter, being no scientist. Someone dismissed the judgment, at best, as a legal superstition. Yet the more I looked at it, the more difficult for me to find legs for the argument they adduced.

I equally noticed that the Federal Ministry of Health in its statement seemed to have fallen short of a categorical position on the matter, beyond declaring the products safe for consumption, when, in fact, the court never declared it unsafe. It cleverly refused to frontally address the issue of likelihood of benzoic acid at some level when exposed to ascorbic acid and other elements becoming carcinogenic, which is the burning issue at hand. It chose to play safe, choosing to only advise “all Nigerians to take medicines with potable water (as) this would help to prevent unexpected drug-food interactions.” Perhaps, it is because it is still conducting its own investigation.

I was left with the same lingering questions, not answered by the statement from the Federal Ministry of Health. It claims that Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) as the standard setting body in Nigeria in consultation with technical experts and relevant stakeholders elaborated the standard of benzoic acid in soft drinks to be at 250mg/kg based on the national climatic and storage conditions this standard has been in existence since 1997 and revised in 2008. In other words, the standard for Nigeria appears to have been last revised nine years ago. That, for me, is disturbing. I felt compelled to find out what really is it with this preservative that would make the standard once set by Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) as high as 600mg/kg to be reviewed in 2016 to 250mg/kg? What prompted that sharp cut? What could have prompted UK and other European countries to set their own standard at 150mg/kg? Is it just because of the temperate climate? Can we really be sure that the peculiar circumstance of Nigeria has been taken care of in this matter?

I decided to do a bit of study on the subject. What did I find?
A reaction occurs when sodium benzoate is used in beverages that also contain ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). The two substances, in an acidic solution, can react together in the presence of light to form small amounts of benzene, a chemical that causes leukemia and other cancers. Though the amount of benzene that forms is really small, leading to only a very small risk of cancer, the risk can be real. Benzene which is carcinogenic can be formed at very low level (ppb level) in soft and fruit drinks containing both benzoates and ascorbic acid. Exposure to heat and light was found to further stimulate the reaction in a 2006 study by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in UK.

According to findings quoted in a study by Kisi and Acquah, the use of benzoic acid as an antimicrobial agent has been observed to have adverse effects such as metabolic acidosis, convulsion, hyperactive and hyperpnoea in experimental animals and humans given very high doses of benzoic acid. The development of allergic reactions to benzoates in humans, such as urticaria, non-immunological contact urticaria and asthma, has also been reported in some studies.

There is a bit of history to this matter of benzene in soft drinks caused by the decarboxylation of benzoic acid in the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300) or erythorbic acid (a diastereomer of ascorbic acid, E315) dating as far back as 1990. Around 1990, FDA was informed by the soft drink industry that benzene, a carcinogen, could form at the ppb level in some beverages that contained benzoate preservatives and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).

In the early 1990s, in the US, the FDA had urged companies not to use benzoate in products that also contain ascorbic acid, but in the 2000s companies were still using that combination. A lawsuit filed in 2006 by private attorneys ultimately forced Coca-Cola, Pepsi Co, and other soft-drink makers in the U.S. to reformulate affected beverages, typically fruit-flavoured products.

In some instances, some manufacturers had to withdraw large quantity of products from sale after benzene contamination in some production plants was discovered.

On account of studies by Health authorities in a number of countries including U.S, UK, Canada and South Korea, measures have had to be taken in response to this matter of benzene in soft drinks. In fact, soft drinks manufacturers themselves have openly expressed concern about.

Reports have it that in 2008, Coca-Cola announced that it would be phasing out sodium benzoate from many of its drinks, apart from Fanta and Sprite. It does appear that the decision by UK authorities and other countries to set their standard at 150mg/kg might not be unconnected to this concern, which some of our scientists who have not conducted any study, seek to dismiss with a wave of the hand.

Now, remember that my major source of concern is this argument by NBC, which some of our people have simply accepted and routinely regurgitated, is that the standard set at 150mg/kg by UK authorities must have been on account of the temperate climate. But then, after learning that benzene was present in some products, research was undertaken by both FDA and the soft drinks industry in U.S. to understand the factors that contributed to benzene formation. This revealed that “elevated temperature and light can stimulate benzene formation in the presence of benzoate salts and Vitamin C.”

So, I am left, again, with more questions:
If elevated temperature, as is the case in tropical Nigeria, is a factor that can enhance benzene formation, how then does it make sense for its prescribed benzoic acid level to be higher than that of a temperate United Kingdom and other European countries? How does it make sense that soft drinks that we all can see are exposed to the harsh elements, in the manner of its distribution and display in the obvious elevated temperature in Nigeria have a benzoic acid level higher than that of a temperate UK? What was on the mind of SON in setting the standard in Nigeria? Why has SON not spoken up on this matter, or has it? What exactly are NAFDAC’s grounds of appeal in this case? Is it the N2 million fine imposed by the court or is it the instruction by the court that it orders the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) Plc to put a written warning on Fanta and Sprite bottles stating that both soft drinks are poisonous when consumed along with Vitamin C? What has NAFDAC got to lose in affirming this preventive instruction?

I struggle to understand why the permissible standard for benzoic acid level in soft drinks will be higher in Nigeria, with its elevated temperature, a proven contributory factor for benzene formation, in comparison with countries such as UK with temperate climate. I struggle to understand why Ghana has a permissible limit of 150 mg while Nigeria’s is 250 mg. Or is Ghana a temperate region too? Even with the permissible limit of 150 mg in Ghana, a study there found the level of benzoic acid to have been as high as 564.00 mg/L in some of the soft drinks examined. I wonder what it might be like in Nigeria if a study were to be conducted on some of the soft drinks on the shelves.

I am struggling to understand these things, especially the lethargy on the part of the regulators.

Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy