There is need for people to be careful while preparing their meals

Increasingly, many Nigerians are dying, ironically, from what ought to sustain and indeed, keep them alive. A professor of Food Science and Technology, Alfred Ihenkuronye, said recently that no fewer than 200,000 persons die annually in the country as a result of contaminated foods. “There are many avenues through which foods can be contaminated,” he said. “And when people eat these foods, they will have problems which may result in deaths”. Even if one may query the figure since statistics are often patchy, the fact of the matter is that food poisoning is a major silent killer in Nigeria today.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is responsible for more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. The health body also revealed earier that “New threats to food safety are constantly emerging. Changes in food production, distribution and consumption; changes to the environment; new and emerging pathogens; antimicrobial resistance – all pose challenges to national food safety systems”.

However, one of the most common food poisoning in Nigeria is through cassava-based meals. For instance, a common menu in many homes in the South-west called amala (yam flour meal) has in recent years claimed several lives. Paradoxically, cassava-based dishes are by far the commonest meals, with popular appeal to the poor. However, Cassava has one major drawback: the roots and leaves of poorly processed cassava plants contain a substance named Linamarin which when eaten is converted to cyanide, a poisonous gas which could be fatal when inhaled or ingested.

Most experts argue that poor preparation of cassava meals can leave enough of the poisonous substance to cause acute intoxication, goiter and in some cases death. The processing often employed by the traditional methods and rural women (by crushing, soaking in water to ferment and baking) is said to be good enough to effectively contain the toxic content found in cassava, whether of the sweet or bitter variety. But these days, many of the producers adopt short-cut processing techniques as some batches may have been processed poorly, which turn out to endanger many lives. In some cases, particularly those with high cyanide level, mere exposure to the volatile substances while being processed can cause some health disorders.

The most endangered, according to experts, are people who are already malnourished as they lack the proper mix of amino-acids which are vital ingredients in detoxifying the poison. Sometime ago, three patients were rushed to the Accident and Emergency Ward of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital after eating a meal of “eba”, perhaps the most popular cassava food variety, in a case Dr. Akintonwa Tunwashe described as “fatal cyanide poisoning.” The patients reportedly vomited besides complaining of abdominal pains immediately after the meal. Tunwashe, who is of the department of pharmacology of the University, said the patients later became unconscious and diagnosed of renal failure. They died shortly of cardiac- related diseases. He said that the cassava meal they took must have slowly released cyanide and “this may have been responsible for the death of the patients.”

What is not in doubt is that cassava has been a staple food in Nigeria for a long time. To that extent, experts are agreed that the present mode of processing cassava for any of its varieties – gari, amala, fufu, tapioca, etc., are good enough to reduce the harmful cyanide content to below toxic level.

On the way forward, WHO offers five practical guides to food vendors and consumers for handling and preparation: Keep clean, separate raw and cooked food, cook food thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials. What the authorities must now do is a campaign to sensitise the public about these measures.