DEALING WITH FOOD POISONING

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The authorities must do more to minimise the dangers

Food safety has for years been a growing concern in the country. Increasingly, many Nigerians are dying, ironically, from what ought to sustain and indeed, keep them alive. Across the country there are disturbing incidents of deaths after meals. Last week, a family of seven comprising the husband, wife and five children were found dead in Mafoluku, Lagos, after the consumption of a meal. They were discovered by neighbours, who forcefully opened their room after no member of the family came out to perform their regular early morning chores. Foamy substances were said to be oozing from their mouths, raising suspicion that they might have eaten a food that was poisoned.

The rate of deaths linked to food contamination during processing and storing is becoming alarming and should not be treated with levity. For years, the issue of food safety has posed a daunting challenge. There is need for strict compliance with laws on food preservation. The improper use of agro-chemicals and pesticides to control pests on agricultural products and grains is one of the causes of the rising cases of food poisoning in Nigeria. The consumption of food grains that have been laced with pesticides by vendors to preserve their shelf life and protect them from destruction by pests put many people at risk of gastro-intestinal disorders and some types of cancers.

In Nigeria, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 200, 000 persons die of food poisoning annually, caused by contaminated foods. The WHO also reported another 20,000 deaths annually arising from exposure to food pesticides.

The whole essence of the National Policy on Food Hygiene and Safety that was launched in 2000 as an integral part of the Nigerian National Health Policy is being questioned if attaining food safety remains a mirage several years after. And like several other countries, Nigeria has to contend with the problem of food-borne diseases with their attendant social, economic and health costs.

The abiding objective of the policy is to attain high level of food hygiene and safety practices which will promote health, control food-borne diseases, minimise and finally eliminate the risk of diseases related to poor food hygiene and safety. Implementation of the policy and other national legislation will address the unsatisfactory level of food hygiene and safety practices which to a large extent is responsible for the prevalence of food-borne diseases in the country.

Meanwhile, associated mostly with food poisoning in recent years are cassava-based dishes which are widely consumed in Nigeria, and indeed in many places in Africa, as in South America, where it is a major source of carbohydrates. They are by far the commonest meals, with popular appeal to the poor. It 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. Experts say that poor preparation of cassava meals can leave enough of the poisonous substance to cause acute intoxication, goiter and in some cases death. In some cases, particularly those with high cyanide level, mere exposure to the volatile substances while being processed can cause some health disorders.

The Federal Ministry of Health, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) should mitigate all food poisoning cases by applying universal food safety practices. The federal agencies should ensure safety compliance by monitoring the quality of food being sold in Nigerian markets. This can be actualised by educating food vendors on hygiene and safety practices as well as concentrating effort in enlightening farmers on the dangers of applying banned agro-chemicals to boost or preserve farm produce.