Mojisola Ojebode, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

Follow Mojisola Ojebode

View Profile

Subjects of Interest

  • Food Security
  • Governance
  • Health
  • Sustainable Development

Nigerian regulatory agencies and food poisoning 03 May 2017

A few years ago, my friend, Dolapo Adetunji, bought carrots and cucumbers from a fruit vendor at the main entrance of University of Ibadan. She washed the vegetables and ate one of the carrots, while waiting for the food she was preparing to be ready. Suddenly, she felt a sharp pain in her abdomen but assumed it was hunger pang. A few minutes later, her meal was ready. Halfway into consuming it, she became acutely sick. She soon lost consciousness and was quickly rushed to a health centre, where she was diagnosed with food poisoning.
Dolapo’s story is hardly unique. Although she recovered from the food poisoning, not everyone who had the same experience was so lucky. Many of us know someone who became sick after consuming poorly handled food. Root crops like carrots particularly require to be thoroughly washed. Sometimes contaminants from the soil can stick to the surface, even if the vegetable is lightly rinsed.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) recently found itself in a lawsuit over whether or not two brands of popular drinks should carry health warning labels. The court, the regulator, and the bottling company all appeared to have a different understanding of the possible risks, forcing the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) to finally step in. According to the health ministry, the drinks met national safety standards.

The implication of this controversy is that there could be loopholes in the activities of Nigerian regulatory bodies that could pose a threat to public health and safety, unless adequate measures are put in place. Such threats go beyond popular drinks to other consumer goods.

It is unacceptable that Nigerians should be wary of the very food they eat. Although there has been an admirable focus on food security in this country, I urge our government to consider the safety of our food as part of that security. Everyone dealing with food items, including fruits and vegetables, should be made to conform to laid down standards and regulations, which focus not only on the activities of the formal food and drinks sectors, but also the informal sectors. As a biochemist who has conducted research in the area of food preservation, I am deeply concerned that we are not doing enough.

It is not typical for vendors of food items, fruits and vegetables as well as other edibles – especially those that are consumed in raw forms – in Nigeria and other developing nations to come under regulatory oversight. This means that traders in open markets and streets are at liberty to sell contaminated food items to unsuspecting members of the public.

Unfortunately, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), unsafe food, containing pathogens and harmful chemical substances, cause more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. 40% of children under five years of age globally are affected by foodborne diseases (or food poisoning), with 125,000 deaths annually.

This is not to say that developing countries are the only ones at risk of foodborne illnesses. One in six Americans, for example, gets sick each year as a result of foodborne diseases. 128,000 of the estimated 48 million affected people are hospitalized, and about 3,000 deaths are recorded each year.

WHO gave the most comprehensive report to date in 2015, estimating the global burden of foodborne diseases. The report shows that food poisoning is caused by 31 bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals. In 2010, the 31 agents caused 600 million foodborne illnesses and 420,000 deaths.

Diarrhoeal diseases – often caused by consuming raw or undercooked fresh produce; dairy products; meat and eggs contaminated by non-typhiodal Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, and pathogenic E.coli (Escherichia coli) – are responsible for illnesses in 550 million people globally causing 230,000 deaths every year.

WHO African and South-East Asian regions have the highest incidence and death rates. More than 91 million people in Africa fall ill and 137,000 die each year, making Africa the highest burden bearer of foodborne diseases per population. Low income countries suffer from diseases such as typhoid fever, food borne cholera, and other diseases caused by pathogenic E. coli while high income countries mainly suffer from Campylobacter.

WHO European region has the lowest estimated burden of foodborne diseases globally. Foodborne outbreaks caused by salmonella within the EU were reduced by 19% from 2008 to 2012. The continuous decline in the incidence of salmonellosis in humans in this region could be related to the setting up of a salmonella control programme. Other control measures might have also contributed to the reduction.

How can food that is consumed for nourishment also become so dangerous? Pathogens can get into food items through improper food handling, unsafe practices on farms, contamination during manufacturing or distribution of edible items. However, all of these risk factors are preventable.

Manufacturing industries and production plants are aware of the costly aftermath of contamination in their products. Therefore, adequate care is taken to ensure food safety. And when they don’t, the government does have ways to take action. For instance, in a situation where there is a breach in good manufacturing practices, regulatory bodies such as NAFDAC and Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) may have to intervene. The contaminated products are recalled from circulation and the company, in some cases, is charged.

Unfortunately, most illnesses, hospitalisations and deaths caused by foodborne illnesses are not reported or recorded. What makes it even harder to track is that the majority of these cases happen in the informal food sector – where there is contamination through unsafe practices on farms and in market places.

In the EU, regulations are enforced for ready-to-eat products, vegetables and fruits, and animal products that require cooking. The levels of compliance to regulations at the farms, slaughterhouses, processing plants and retail outlets are also monitored.  

In Nigeria, the large number of small farms and home gardens owned by individuals could make proper monitoring of farm practices a challenge for government agencies. Nevertheless, this should be a priority for the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD).

About 70% of the food we consume is cultivated in rural areas where farmers and distributors are mostly illiterate. The Nigerian government must create the framework to sensitize and educate such farmers and distributors about healthy practices and safe means of handing foods to avoid contamination. Achieving food safety begins with ensuring proper practices in production at the farm level. FMARD should work to ensure that good agricultural practices are maintained on farms to reduce microbial and chemical hazards.

Even more important, open markets should be properly coordinated to ensure that hygienic conditions are maintained on a daily basis. In fact, the cleanliness and personal hygiene of vendors in market places should be looked into. Regular training of food handlers and vendors should be done to drastically reduce or stop incidents of food poisoning and deaths in the country. A comprehensive task force could be created by the Environment Department and Health Department of each Local Government Areas to monitor this.

Institutions and corporate bodies should constantly check the safety of the water and food provided for students and workers. Such a structure would have prevented the recent diarrhoea outbreak in Queens College, Lagos that led to the death of three students and left about forty others hospitalised.

With the help of improved food handling techniques, following the five keys to safer food as stated by WHO – keeping a clean environment, separating raw and cooked food to prevent contamination of already cooked food, thorough cooking, keeping food at safe temperatures, and use of safe water and raw materials – foodborne illnesses would be preventable.

Separating raw food, especially meat, seafood, and poultry products, and their juice from other foods is necessary to avoid transfer of dangerous pathogens to other foods during food preparation and storage. Safe raw materials refer to fresh and whole food or fruits properly stored and are within the recommended shelf life.

The FMOH, FMARD and regulatory bodies in Nigeria such as SON and NAFDAC should develop workable strategies to enforce already existing regulations and put new approaches and laws in place to protect consumers, including those in underserved communities.