Ponmo: A local delicacy under threat as unwholesome practices scare consumers
Animal hides, popularly called ponmo in Yoruba and kanda in Igbo is a local delicacy enjoyed by many Nigerians for decades. It is suitable for preparing many Nigerian soups, such as egusi soup, vegetable soup, gbegiri soup, bitter leaf soup and many more. It is thus an important foodstuff for restaurateurs in the country, as ponmo lovers hardly take any food without a lump. And due to the health-related problems associated with eating red meat, cowhides have become a substitute for red meat in many homes. So, Nigerians are simply at home with ponmo consumption.
Nutritional Values Of Cowhides
Those who have made ponmo a regular feature in their meals derive some health benefits. The Deputy Director, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu, Dr. Chika Ndiokwelu, said ponmo could be classified as an animal protein food source, but noted that it is, unfortunately, an incomplete protein (contains principal gelatin) because it does not contain all the essential amino acids.
The nutritionist and dietician, therefore, said when it is combined with other animal protein sources, such as beef and others, the protein quality of a dish it is prepared with increases as it contains less fat.
She said: “The importance of ponmo to human diet is not much in terms of nutrient superiority except as a delicacy. It could have been described as a cheap source of protein when some crayfish or smaller quantities of beef/chicken, are combined with it. Unfortunately, it is not cheap.
“It is a good addition to one’s diet if the person is trying to lose weight because of the low calories, but eating it will not make one lose weight. Weight loss is holistic in nature. It involves a combination of strategies. A 40-gram serving of ponmo has zero grams of fat, sugar, protein, fiber, carbs, and only 37 calories.”
Ndiokwelu said if properly processed and used for cooking in combination with other animal source proteins, containing all essential amino acids, then it is okay for eating occasionally.
Also, a study published in the Journal of Animal Production Research unveiled the nutritional value of ponmo consumption. The study cited a food technologist at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) Lagos, Funmi Oladunmoye, who also reported that ponmo should not be an alternative for meat as it is deficient in essential nutrients needed by the body, but should rather be used as a food additive (emulsifier).
A Delicacy Under Threat
Despite the benefits derived from consuming cowhides, the delicacy has come under threat following the activities of some unscrupulous merchants who engage in unwholesome practices in a bid to make a huge profit at the expense of the health of consumers. As a result, many hitherto ponmo lovers are now circumspect in consuming the product to the detriment of the dealers.
Recently, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) alerted the general public and in particular ponmo consumers on the activities of some unscrupulous businessmen and traders who are selling industrial animal hides as food article.
According to NAFDAC, following intelligence reports by its Investigation and Enforcement Directorate, it has been successfully dealing with isolated cases of dangerous diversion of animal hides meant for industrial use into the food chain for consumption as local the delicacy since 2015. The agency said this practice poses a grave danger to public health.
Investigations revealed that some companies legally imported hides from countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, while the majority of the product was smuggled into the country through the porous borders.
Director-General of NAFDAC, Prof. Christiana Mojisola Adeyeye, in a statement, said these imported animal hides are meant for industrial use by leather industries for the manufacturing of items such as shoes, bags, and belt, among others.
“The hides, therefore, are pretreated with industrial chemicals which are not of food-grade and will be toxic and injurious to human health,” she said.
Adeyeye said health hazards inherent in the consumption of such animal hides include risk of liver, kidney and heart damage, increased risk of plastic anemia, central nervous system toxicity, and cancer, among others.
She advised the general public to be vigilant and exercise discretion when purchasing animal hides and indeed other food items.
Also, the Lagos State Government had earlier in the year confiscated a truckload of contaminated cowhide at Ijegun, a suburb of Lagos in Ikotun-Igando Local Council Development Area.
The government disclosed that some individuals, still at large, had imported the ponmo into the country to be sold to the unsuspecting consuming public.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Olayiwole Onasanya, who made the disclosure, noted that the Police in the Ikotun area of the state arrested a vehicle loaded with ponmo and informed officials of the state government.
Recall that the Lagos State Taskforce on Environmental and Special Offences Enforcement Unit had also in April this year, seized 30 tonnes of cow skin worth N10 million, which was presumed to be poisonous and unhealthy for human consumption, at a skin hide processing factory located at College Road, Igando. The task force also arrested six persons connected with the poisonous cow skins in the raid.
Consequently, the news that poisonous and contaminated cow skin delicacy was in circulation raised fear in the heart of many, who now doubt the suitability of the food.
However, the state government two months ago set up a monitoring and investigative committee headed by Onasanya to unravel the source of poisonous ponmo. The committee also had the mandate to dislodge illegal abattoirs where ponmo was being processed in the state, resulting in the confiscation of some poisonous ponmo and arrest of the persons behind them.
Former Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Jide Idris, while reviewing the report of preliminary investigation and enforcement carried out on the sale of toxic ponmo in the state, said samples of the confiscated ponmo had been sent to NAFDAC laboratory for suitability test analysis for human consumption.
The state government had also written to the Quarantine Service to properly investigate anybody importing such items into the country while urging the Federal Government and its agencies in charge of border control to step up activities to prevent the importation of such poisonous foods and products into the country.
The Guardian investigation revealed that neither has the committee set up to investigate the issue of poisonous ponmo published any findings nor has NAFDAC released any laboratory report on the suitability test analysis on ponmo for human consumption.
Also, the recent confiscation of a truck-load in the state of ponmo suggests that the Quarantine Service was yet to step up its activities in this regard, likewise other relevant agencies.
According to an inside source, who does not want his name published, poisonous ponmo is imported from other African countries not only overseas.
“People at the border are responsible for this poisonous ponmo circulating in the country. When these bad people import it, it gets to the port where it is cleared, but the law enforcement agencies at the ports allow it to come into the country. This poisonous ponmo are not consumed in those countries; they rather send it to Nigeria for people to eat and die. They call it Ijebu ponmo to deceive Nigerians.”
Director of Public Affairs, Lagos State Ministry of Health, Adeola Salako, had said that traders engaged in the sale of poisonous ponmo do business between 4.00a.m. and 6.00a.m. in various locations in Ojo and Iba local council areas, which include Volkswagen bus stop, Iyana Iba and Afolabi Ege Markets. Salako also revealed that a company located at the Ijedodo area of Iba Local Council Development Area (LCDA) was identified as the supplier of toxic ponmo and has subsequently been put under surveillance.
Findings, however, showed that dealers in poisonous ponmo also operate during the afternoon hours at different markets in the state, such as Agege, Ikotun, Oshodi, Abule-Egba, Oto, Egbeda, Iyana Ipaja, Ile-Epo, and Mushin, among others. Some individuals also distribute the product to retailers in smaller quantities.
Low Patronage Sets In
When The Guardian paid a visit to some of the abattoirs in Agege, Air Force Base in Shasha and Kara, off Isheri-Berger, the butchers and traders were busy with their activities. But they lamented low sales as a result of the news of the alleged presence of poisonous ponmo in the market.
A supplier at Agege abattoir, the biggest in Lagos State, who gave his name as Fatai, said before the news broke, if he invested N100, 000 on ponmo, he realised double the capital as profit. He lamented that presently, he hardly recoups his investment not to talk of profit.
The processes involved in producing the ponmo as observed at Agege abattoir starts from the slaughterhouse where the cow is killed to the part where the skin is peeled off and then de-haired.
Fatai explained that there are three kinds of ponmo, which are the white, brown (Ijebu ponmo) and the ones from buffalo.
The white ponmo is de-haired by shaving, while the brown ponmo is de-haired by singeing. The names ‘white ponmo’ and ‘brown ponmo’ are drawn from their respective colours after de-hairing and processing.
It was observed that the singeing of cow skin to brown ponmo employs the use of firewood. Some people, however, use various substances such as used plastics, used tires, kerosine and spent engine oil as fire sources, either alone or in combination with firewood.
The singed cowhide is thereafter washed several times and then boiled in water for several hours to bring about the initial softening of the hide. The boiled singed hide is then subjected to final softening by soaking in water until it is tender enough for cooking and looks appealing to consumers.
Fatai added that another process is frying the cow skin using the lipids (fat) gotten from the animals. The lipids, according to him, are used to fry the cow skin to give it a fine texture.
He added that the lipids also help in preserving the ponmo for long period of time, even while packed in sacks for exporting to other countries.
He claimed that the poisonous ponmo are got from buffalo and not cow, while other butchers alleged that harmful chemicals and salt are added to boost the size of ponmo, which gives it a foul smell.
While explaining the difference between poisonous ponmo and harmless ones, a female trader at the abattoir, who craved anonymity, said the ponmo from the cow is flat in nature and safe for consumption, while the one from buffalo is swollen and has foul smell, adding that it is sold cheaper in the market. She noted that cow skin is costlier because of the inadequate supply of cows from the northern part of the country.
Studies have revealed that eating infected cowhide could cause deadly infections, chronic and terminal cardiovascular diseases. Others are tapeworm, roundworm, bovine tuberculosis, food poisoning, heart and liver diseases, pneumonia, septicemia, peritonitis, tumours and abscesses among others.
Research published in the Journal of Health Pollution revealed that cowhides that are de-haired by singeing are potentially exposed to contaminants like toxic organic compounds, which include polyaromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, furans, benzene and trace/toxic metals, which may be deposited by the singeing substrate.
The study titled “Physicochemical and Genotoxic Evaluations of Singed Cowhide Meat (Ponmo) Wastewater”, was conducted by Ebenezer Olasunkanmi Dada, Hadijat Oluwatobi Osilagun and Kelechi Longinus Njoku of the Department of Cell Biology and Genetics, Environmental Biology Unit, Faculty of Science, University of Lagos.
Further studies confirmed that cow hides processed for consumption by singeing have a higher contaminant load, especially metals, relative to those processed by other methods like shaving.
Also, another study titled “Reviewing The Issues About Cattle Hides Consumption In Nigeria: An Advocacy Against Eating Ponmo,” by U. H. Udoh, U. A. Inyang and P. J Akpan, of the Department of Animal Science, University of Uyo, stated that a lot of concerns over the air as regards the safety of ponmo consumption to human health are as a result of the way it is being handled from recovery to processing.
The study published in the Journal of Animal Production Research in 2018, noted that other health concerns are prompted by the health status of the animals prior to slaughter.
The study states: “During this process, the hides are exposed to a lot of contaminants like dust and microbes, which could be very fatal to human health if consumed without proper processing.
“Also, cattle hides that are recovered and processed in the southern abattoirs are so done hurriedly to meet demand. The hastiness with which hides are processed might make them unfit for consumption.”
The researchers observed that due to the health-related problems associated with eating red meat, cow hides have become a substitute for red meat in Nigeria, which in turn have resulted in increased demand for the product, adding that to meet this demand, abattoir workers do not take time in processing these hides appropriately.
The study also raised concerns as regards the transfer of diseases and parasites from cowhide to humans via the food chain, which according to the researchers, was opined by the Director-General, Nigerian Institute of Leather Science and Technology (NILEST), Zaria, Dr. Isuwa Adamu, in an interview with the Nigerian News Agency, as cited by The Nigerian Eye on October 8, 2014.
Adamu stated that ponmo is dangerous to human health, as some of the hides are harvested from sick animal carcasses with skin disease, adding that sometimes, the withdrawal period of chemicals used in treating these diseased animals are not observed before slaughter, leaving consumers vulnerable to such chemicals.
The researchers also noted that due to the high demand for ponmo, woods are fuelled with substances like tyres, plastics, and polystyrene materials to hasten the process of singeing, adding that these materials deposit some toxic metals to the hide being processed, which then becomes a source of potential health hazard.
Also, Dr. Ndiokwelu of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, UNTH, affirmed that the use of tyres, petrol, and kerosene contaminates ponmo with the by-products of these materials (hydrocarbons), which is not good for the body.
“Given the way it is generally processed and chemicals injected under the skin of animals for treatment of cow skin diseases, one can confidently state that ponmo is not advisable for one to consume. Some of these skin diseases are such that boiling them ordinarily may not kill the bacteria. Some of the animals killed had been ill and undergoing injections but the rearers killed or sold them to people especially villagers leaving them vulnerable to chemicals which are still under the skin of the animal skin,” Ndiokwelu said.
‘Producing Wholesome Ponmo Is Our Family Business’
By Tobi Awodipe
LOCATED somewhere in Ikorodu, Rilwan Ogo-Oluwa Enterprises is one of the numerous places where cowhide a.k.a ponmo is processed and sold to wholesalers, distributors, and end-users. The owner of the business, who chose to be identified simply as Baba Rilwan and whose family has been into the business for almost 30 years, said he and his fellow ponmo producers in their association cannot be linked in any way to poisonous ponmo because they produce the product themselves and with no additives.
“Our ponmo is different from those ones you see being hawked around; those ones are ‘ponmo Ijebu’ and they smell a lot. Ours do not smell because it is fresh. That so-called Ijebu ponmo are brought from the North and believe me, I tell you that it is the hides of camels, horses and other strange animals that are being brought down and sold, which is in turn resold to end-users. A lot of people do not know the difference; they just go to the market and buy what they see,” he said.
Baba Rilwan revealed that food vendors use Ijebu ponmo a lot because it is cheap. “Those are camel, horse and donkey hides they pass off as cowhides. The second type of ponmo is the imported one, which is now very common in the market. I don’t know exactly where they bring them from but I know they are imported. They are very thick when you see it and I am not sure which hide it is exactly but they are dangerous. This is because this set of ponmo is injected with formaldehyde to prevent it from spoiling and endure the rigours of the journey and another chemical, which makes it look huge and plump. For these two sets of ponmo, they are dried and brought down here to the south and on getting here, they are soaked so they swell and look big. This is what makes it smell. The third set of ponmo is the one we do here and it is all-natural and quite expensive.”
Pointing to some roasted hides on the floor, Baba Rilwan said not everybody could afford the type of ponmo they produce because they process it themselves without using chemicals.
“Look at these skins; they are from just two cows and cost me almost N60, 000. I haven’t added the cost of transportation, labour, profit and so on. So, as you can see, it is not cheap. The skill is in the cutting, you have to know how to cut it in order to be able to remain in business,” he explained.
He said the cost of cow hide shot up astronomically recently and almost forced him out of business. He opined that the development might have pushed many ponmo traders to take short cuts in order to stay in business.
“I can never involve myself in that ponmo from Ijebu because apart from the fact that it goes against my conscience, I have customers of almost two decades that have known my quality and I don’t wish to compromise on that.
In the past, we process as much as eight to 10 cow hides daily but because of the huge cost, we now do just between two and four hides daily. I also believe the Boko Haram problem in the North and cattle rustling greatly contributed to the rise in the cost of cowhide. In the good old days, how many people were eating ponmo? However, poverty, as well as other factors I don’t wish to delve into, has made it a staple in most Nigerian homes now.”
Taking The Guardian through the ponmo they were processing that day, he said they mostly do two types, the white and the brown ponmo.
“When the hide is brought from the abattoir located in Sagamu, we divide it into two so we can do the two types. The white one is scraped with a blade and boiled for several hours. When it is soft enough we remove it, cool it down and proceed to cut it and the distributors come to take it to the market for sale. The brown type is scraped, then roasted to the point of being burnt before soaked in boiling water overnight. By the following morning, it is soft enough and all the burnt part will fall off naturally. The major difference between our ponmo and those ones from Ijebu is that ours do not smell because it is fresh. The business is profitable albeit very risky but greed from some quarters is now spoiling it for the rest of us,” he added.
In a bid to buttress his sincerity, Baba Rilwan swore that he gets his hides from the main abattoir in Sagamu and not from the North or the ones smuggled into the country.
“We are hearing that the government wants to ban ponmo; they cannot ban this type. It is the imported ones and those strange ones from the North that should be banned. The one we do here is completely fresh, chemical free and safe for consumption, it doesn’t smell and it is not dangerous. More so, most of the fried meat (tinko) and suya (spiced meat) that is being sold around are usually brought from the North while some are imported and not cow meat but camel, donkey, horse and all manners of animals. Government should look into that as well instead of trying to ban ponmo. They should look at how to encourage and scale us up so we can grow. I want to expand beyond this. I have the capacity to process 100 cow hides a day. I just need money and support,” he said.