Omolabake Fasogbon examines how unhealthy vegetable cooking oil, fueled by nefarious acts of greedy and ignorant entrepreneurs, as well as government insensitivity, has turned killer product in Nigeria
Morufat Adeyemi, 55, is a retail trader at Ile Epo Market in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos State. She sells unbranded vegetable and palm oil. Right in her moderate wares are used pet bottles of water and beverages of different brands. Some of the bottles are filled with vegetable oil content in different states – congeal, semi liquid and liquid with obvious particles.
The empty bottles are scattered unkept, while polythene bags litter the small shade should customers prefer them to the plastic bottles.
When THISDAY approached Adeyemi for two and half litres of vegetable oil, she said it cost N2000, but with the keg, it would cost N2200 since she also buys the plastic bottles and kegs from scavengers.
She said: “However, if you don’t have money for the keg, I can help you deposit it in a polythene bag, but I will advise you to use the keg. Once you are done with the content, you can sell it back to me at the rate of N100 because I will also use it to sell for other customers, this is how we recycle it,” she said.
Adeyemi is just one of the many traders who sell vegetable oil in ways condemned by the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and other health bodies.
Away from the market is a 42 years old woman who doesn’t want her name in print. She was admitted at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) groaning in severe pains.
She was diagnosed of heart attack as a result of blockage of one of her blood vessels supplying the heart. The cardiologist attending to her told THISDAY that the woman has a Basic Mass Index (BMI) of 45kg/m2 and that the only risk factor in her situation was obesity as she had no previous history of hypertension, diabetes or family history of heart diseases.
He added that the woman develop plaques as a result of accumulated cholesterol in her blood vessels. The doctor said her situation can only be remedied with surgery. According to the doctor, her case is just one of several cases whose complications developed from high level cholesterol, with fingers pointing to several causal factors, including intake of unhealthy vegetable or palm oil.
Doctors say healthy vegetable oil is one of the foods nutritionists recommend as drug substitute, as it is believed to be medicinal, with the kitchen referred to as the best hospital.
Health experts say vegetable oil in itself contains hardy components which when taken moderately refreshes the body, as it contains Vitamin A, D, E , essential fatty acid and energy producing nutrients, in addition to the flavour it graces to meals.
As a matter of fact, it is one of the diets approved by the Nigerian government to address Vitamin A deficiency, mostly among women and children. But, as saving as this ingredient has been proven to be, its contamination has been established to be one of the leading causes of death, as it is responsible for over 150,000 deaths annually, according to available reports.
The Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF) and NAFDAC say contaminated vegetable oil is the kind that has been diluted with other forms of oil, including animal fat, adding that once it gets congealed at room temperature, or packaged in unhealthy containers, it becomes unfit for use.
The Executive Director, NHF, Dr Kingsley Akinroye said vegetable oil becomes contaminated by interference with any additive that ought not to be part of the vegetable oil or even content injurious to health that ought to have been removed in the course of oil extraction, as this was the case seen in Adeyemi’s shop.
He believed vegetable oil found in such situations may contain high cholesterol and work against the normal flow of the body, thereby blocking heart vessels and leading to sluggishness of blood movement.
This health anomaly has been identified as the leading cause of common non communicable diseases such as: aches, pains, low sperm count, impotence, high cholesterol, heart complications, strokes, adult onset diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cancer, amongst others.
On the other hand, NAFDAC categorises safe vegetable oil as one that is sourced from plant, cholesterol free and then produced, packaged and distributed in hygienic situation.
More specific, the agency in its ‘Fat&Oil Regulations 2018’, stated that vegetable oils shall be derived from the botanical source after which they are named and indicated under the regulations for individual oils”.
The regulation also reads in part, “No person shall manufacture, package, import, export, advertise, distribute or sell any vegetable oil as specified in Schedule I to these regulations, unless, it is fortified with Vitamin A to a level not below 20,000 I.U./kg”.
The question then is: What kind of Vegetable oil do Nigerians consume and what health value does it offer them?
Jarring Result from Investigations
A research conducted by leading vegetable oil makers show that 70 per cent of cooking oil in the Nigerian market is unbranded.
THISDAY investigation shows that nearly all unbranded oils in the country meets the features of contamination laid down by NAFDAC. At the popular wholesale hub for vegetable oil and other food items in Daleko Market in Mushin, Lagos State, THISDAY approached one of the wholesalers, identified as Fatai, and pretended to be one who wants to venture into vegetable oil business.
In his ‘office’ lies multitude of flies, charcoal-like and dirt filled steel drum from where oil is dished into 25 litres of used keg, and the untidy appearance of persons handling the product caught the attention of the reporter.
Regardless, retailers trooped in droves to book and pick their orders that eventually goes down to local government approved open markets, street markets and roadside food joints, etc.
Fatai said: “Five drums of vegetable oil will give you one ton but as a new entrant, you can start with two drums to first ascertain the viability of the business. A ton goes for between N450, 000 to N500, 000 depending on whether you are buying King or Avop brand.”
According to him, the Avop oil made with palm oil don’t usually move well when the weather is cold because they get solid and turns white under cold weather. However, the King type made with palm kernel, also get congealed at any season, but not all the time.
While Fatai makes unbranded oil, he buys stickers of his preferred brand and labels the keg in other to deceive unsuspecting Nigerians to make his work look like the type that has gone through all scientific processes. “The label goes for N20 per sticker, but we can only label our kegs after passing through the customs. We can label them Mamador, Power oil, among others. This attracts elites and rich people,” he said.
Asked about how often they wash the steel drums, he argued that there was no need to wash the drums since products go in and out of them almost on a daily basis. But he refused to admit that congealed oil has any health implications and that oils could be exposed to contaminants in their crude way of handling them.
His excuse, like many others interviewed, was that such has been the situation for ages where there have been no known or established cases of diseases most especially among older generations, who consumed such almost all of their lives.
Illegal Processing, Distribution
In addition to the revelations at Daleko market, more facts have also emerged on how unbranded vegetable oils are illegally processed and distributed across the country against regulatory prescriptions.
Reports have it that most vegetable oil smuggled into the country are being recycled and are illegally dumped in the country. Unfortunately, majority of them cannot be traced to source countries, which makes it more difficult to trace the content.
According to experts, while cooking oil can actually be recycled, such can only be used as animal feed, directly as fuel and to produce biodiesel, soap, and other industrial products. They noted that such oil is deadly when consumed by humans most especially as it contained polychlorinated biphenyl, PCBs.
Study of Unbranded Oil
A recent study on Microbial profile of unbranded vegetable oil has revealed the excess content of total heterotrophic bacterial count (THBC) and total heterotrophic fungal count (THFC) found in unbranded vegetable oil far above the approved guidelines of WHO and NAFDAC.
In its report, the Nigerian Custom Service, NCS, stated that it was able to seize 2163 kegs of 25 litres and 64 kegs of five litres of vegetable oil between January and August 2018.
More shocking is how these products are diluted with animal fat to increase its volume and also conveyed in petroleum tanker which experts say could lead to cancer.
Recently, a video went viral showing a fallen truck loaded with vegetable oil, with people scampering to scoop spilled content from the gutter. For those scooping the oil, one may say that they are doing so for their personal consumption, it is also not uncertain that part of the oil could be passed on to the open market to be purchased by innocent and unsuspecting Nigerians. The video is one of the exposed behind the scenes activities of what ended up in the market.
From all indications, the root factors which aids the sale and consumption of these killer vegetable oils boils down to porous borders, ignorance, and government insensitivity.
Medical studies have proven that chronic diseases have root in poor nutrition, hence, medical professionals often advise patients to watch their dietary intake ahead of other health precautions. Sadly, this is one area Nigerians, except for few, take with a huge amount of levity.
The discovery at Daleko market further lent credence to the wide penetration of unsafe cooking oil across the country. THISDAY findings show that unregistered branded oil has flooded the Nigerian market with consumers welcoming them.
Among the factors that were found to have aided this anomaly were poor economic situation whereby a lot prefer to patronise cheap cooking oil, so far it can serve their immediate needs. On the other hand, those who can afford good oil are ignorant of safe and unsafe oil, hence, the need for massive enlightenment campaign.
While the Nigerian Custom Service claims to have been making arrests from illegal entry and trade, vegetable oil from neighboring countries, especially Cotonou still finds its way into Nigeria.
Again is the luxury of freedom with which operators run at both wholesale and retail market, this raises inquisitions into government inactions, despite its awareness on the hazards of contaminated cooking oil.
For medical professionals, contaminated oil is a death sentence. Figures released by food science experts show that 200,000 people die annually due to food poison in Nigeria. These deaths, to them, were caused by contaminated foods through improper processing, preservation and service.
Similarly, the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, recently, during the commemoration of World Heart Day, lamented the outrageous number of lives that have already been taken away by heart-related diseases, majorly caused by poor diet.
According to him, Nigeria, yearly, loses 150,000 persons to heart -related diseases such as coronary artery diseases, cardiomegaly, heart attack, irregular heart rythm, high blood pressure and many others. Sadly, the minister also hinted that the figure is expected to rise significantly by the year 2030, if emergency steps are not taken.
Experts Proffer Solutions
While as at today, there are different shades of vegetable cooking oil in the market, it has been discovered that sellers and consumers still lack knowledge on the difference between healthy and dangerous cooking oil, while few who know, find it hard to come to terms with medical findings on contaminated oil, on the stance that it did not harm older generations who consumed such almost all of their lives.
Reacting to this conventional belief, Nutrition consultant and the National Technical Advisor of Micro Nutrients Initiative (MI), Dr. Omotola Bamidele Davis said: “Science is based on facts and figures. There may not be any evidence to that claim either through autopsy or life expectancy figures by generations to buttress this claim. However, these days, influence of sharp trade practices as well as variation in lifestyle, eating habits and environmental influence may have worsened the situation.”
He cautioned Nigerians on the handling of vegetable oils such as frying and overheating to flash points, which he said results into production of harmful chemicals like peroxides, aldehydes, among others.
Davis worries that Nigerians were at higher risk of consuming vegetable oils of unknown content that are not certified by regulatory authorities, especially now that the market is flooded with even unchecked and unapproved branded cooking oil.
He posited that a lot of manufacturers have failed to approach NHF for certification because they lacked the required standards. He thereby cited a situation whereby some manufacturers approached the foundation for approval but couldn’t complete the required process and therefore backed out.
“As much as we cannot vouch for unbranded oil, we implore Nigerians to go for branded oil that has NAFDAC, NHF certifications.”
As a way out, he urged Nigerians to be vigilant. Beyond this, he proffered, “Our regulatory agencies need to do regular and periodic market surveillance to discourage fakers. Scientists and civil society organisation must be alive to their responsibilities to caution the spread of unhealthy cooking oil that is threatening the country’s population strength.
He added, “there must be strict vigilance, awareness creation and proactive enforcement of the laws on foods, food safety and best international manufacturing practices by the regulatory agencies and industries including cottage /small scale industries and blending plants .
“Government, through legislation, should also back up the activities of NHF on its stance on quality and healthy cooking oil.”
Plans to Deploy Rapid Oil Test Kit
Acknowledging the menace of unsafe vegetable oil in the market and effect on general health of Nigerians, the minister of health said the ministry was pulling all stops to ensure food safety across the nation.
He disclosed that as part of efforts to contain the consumption of contaminated vegetable oil, the ministry was considering deployment of rapid oil test kits through non government organisations, and distribution companies.
He said further steps to be taken include, “the ministry, through,the Food Safety and Quality Programme (FSQP), is conscious of linkage of cardio vascular diseases to the presences of Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs), and other health injurious oils and is looking forward to developing necessary policy and guideline on fats and oils, cum reviewing of existing regulations.
“Effort is being made to develop food safety manuals for food operators and guideline for identification of high risk foods. The FSQP is looking forward to conducting a baseline survey on the quality and safety of fats and oils food products sold in the Nigerian market.”
In addition, he hinted of plans by the ministry to incorporate food safety in school curriculum. This to him will aid in early involvement of children and inculcate culture of food safety and quality practices in them.