While unsafe food causes several diseases, including cancer, diarrhea and cholera, which are common in Nigeria, scientists believe one of the best ways of tackling healthcare challenges is through access to safe and nutritious food. Martins Ifijeh writes
While the World Health Organisation has identified food safety as one of the major ways of tackling several diseases threatening human existence, as well as achieving some targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), indications suggest not many countries are giving it a priority.
The health body says many low and middle income countries are still having significant rise in disease burdens like diarrhoea, cholera and malnutrition due to unsafe foods containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances.
An estimated 600 million â€“ almost one in 10 people in the world â€“ fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years.
The statistics show that for diarrhoea alone, children under five years of age who suffer from it globally are over 220 million with about 96,000 losing their lives to it every year.
Food experts say food safety and its security has a major role to play in the health indices of a nation, noting that unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick.
They also believe food borne diseases impede socio-economic development by straining healthcare systems, and harming national economies, tourism and trade.
According to WHO, â€œImproving food safety is a key in achieving SDG. Governments should make food safety a public health priority, as they play a pivotal role in developing policies and regulatory frameworks, establishing and implementing effective food safety systems that ensure that food producers and suppliers along the whole food chain operate responsibly and supply safe food to consumers. Food can become contaminated at any point of production and distribution, and the primary responsibility lies with food producers.â€
It is in addressing the health challenges posed by unsafe food in Nigeria, as well as improve the countryâ€™s economy through food safety, food security and food value chain that the Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology (NIFST) organised its 41st conference and annual general meeting in Abuja.
At the Coca Cola sponsored event, food scientists said food poisoning from spoilage was a serious public health issue that can cause serious illness or sometimes lead to permanent disability or even death, with the call for appropriate processing, production, transportation, storage, preparation and sale of food in hygienic conditions.
They said there was need for the provision and consumption of healthier foods that are affordable, accessible and locally available. They opined that Nigeria is green with abundant nutritional food plants and herbs, but lack regulation and standard to produce quality food for consumption.
Speaking at the conference, the Vice President, Global Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, United States, Dr. Wamwari Waichungo called on Nigeria to take issues of food safety and regulation seriously in order to drive the countryâ€™s economy and increase the health indices of its people.
She said the country needs scientific discipline on handling, preparation and storage of food in order to prevent food borne illness, adding that this will add to customer confidence for patronising local foods and beverages.
Waichungo said food plants sourced locally have more medicinal and nutritional value other than those imported from outside the country, in which its condition of preservation is unknown.
In her presentation titled: â€˜Leveraging Food Safety and Regulatory harmonisation to Drive Nigerian Food Economyâ€™, she stressed that Nigeria has a bad culture of processing and preserving food, which affects its quality and nutritional value, adding that policies need to be implemented to monitor the food chain process right from the production to point of sale.
â€œFood safety encompasses not only the prevention of gastro-intestinal illnesses caused by bacteria and viruses, but also the avoidance of harm from chemical contamination and the ingestion of unwanted physical contaminants such as glass or metal. Nutrition is about making sure you get the right nutrients, vitamins, minerals, making sure we have enough protein. You canâ€™t just have a group of scientists trying to solve a problem which is huge, they need gross collaboration to solve the problem.
â€œWhen the quality of foods and other products meet international standards, Nigerians will no longer prefer to buy products abroad.
â€œI worked for several years in Nigeria before I left for Atlanta, and what is easily noticed is that hardly you find anything sourced locally in Nigeria, yet the country is very green with high rainfall. For this to change, there must be conscious efforts, not only by food scientists or other members of the value chain, but the government as well. They should be involved through policies and implementations.
â€œI know Nigeria has enough flower or cassava that can be processed into juice and foods, but we need to ensure we invest in factories that will also help preserve and increase their shelf lives.â€ Providing a way out, the food scientist said government should introduce incentives and policies, as these have worked in several countries that have grown their local industries. She said there should be agricultural incentives to build agricultural products, or incentives to build factory facilities.
â€œThen, there should be disincentives on importation of such products. With incentive and disincentive, the market will be much more competitive, and then benefit local production eventually,â€ she said. On the belief by many Nigerians that the Coke in the formula in the countryâ€™s Coke was different from the ones in developed countries like the U.S., she said Coke anywhere in the world contains the same formula.
The National President, NIFST, Dr. Dahiru J. Adamu, said: â€œgovernment should invest in food security as human health is governed predominantly by the nutritional value of food we consume, hence, affecting most of the activities that we do.â€
He stressed that food is the sole source of energy, minerals, and vitamins for the body and is responsible for the efficient metabolism of every bodily process, adding that the country needs to enshrine quality in its product, building a road map and action plan for sustainable development of its food sector.
Speaking on the theme of the conference tagged: â€˜Rejuvenating the Nigerian Economy Through Promotion of Food Value Chainâ€™, the Chairman, Nigeria Beverage Panel and Retired Dean, College of Food and Human Ecology, University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Prof. Babatunde Oguntona, said if the quality of food in Nigeria was good, the local consumer will be healthy and the producer will be able to export and earn more money, adding â€œEither way you are growing the economy.â€
Present at the conference include: the deputy governor of Kano Sate, Hafiz Abubaka; representatives of the Minister of Science and Technology, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) as well as the Director Generals of the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Federal Institute for Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO), Consumer Protection Council (CPC), among others.