Menace of Tomato Paste Importers

Three years into the official ban of imported tomato paste in Nigeria, Chinese and Nigerian importers have continued to flood the Nigerian market with the product at the detriment of the health of Nigerians, local manufacturers and the economy at large, writes Nume Ekeghe

The government of Nigeria and its several policymakers have in recent years been preaching the need to not just diversify the economy of the country away from oil but to work towards food sufficiency. 

Asides this, the government is saddled with ensuring that food products that are substandard or harmful to the wellbeing of its citizens are not circulated within the country. This had prompted the ban of imported tomato paste into the country in 2019.

However, three years into the ban, imported tomato paste that is of substandard value and deemed harmful to health of consumers have continued to flood the Nigerian market. THISDAY findings show that up to 91.1 per cent of imported tomato paste in Nigerian markets are substandard and unhealthy for consumers.

Grounds for Ban on Imports

Prior to the ban in 2019, the former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dr. Paul Orhii had met with importers of tomato paste and announced plans to conduct a study of the quality of tomato paste being imported into the country.

With samples taken from the major markets in Lagos state, the base of distributions of the imported tomato paste, the report which was submitted in early 2015 had focused on the study and laboratory analysis of the tomato content. “The Codex Standards and the Nigerian Industrial Standards (NIS) has specified that tomato content should be 28 per cent minimum. The majority of the brands of tomato paste sampled were registered brands.” The report read in part.

The resultant finding however showed that 91.1 per cent of the imported tomato paste was “unsatisfactory” as “the food safety implications and attendant health effects of these findings are very alarming. Its results indicate that companies of registered tomato paste products from China are conniving with the Chinese manufacturers to dump substandard products to the unsuspecting Nigerian consumers.” This led to the recommendation of the report that amongst others, the importation of tomato paste brands in retail parks be suspended until further notice. 

In June 2019 the Ministry of Finance had issued a circular, adding tomato paste on the revised import prohibition list. Of the 12 items listed in the circular issued by the then Permanent Secretary, Dr Mahmoud Isa-Dutse, it was stated in item 8 that, “Tomatoes, whole or in pieces H.S Code 2002.10.10.00 and Tomato Concentrate, put up for retail sale, H.S, Code 2002.90.20.00 and 2002.90.90.00.” 

Impact of Substandard Tomatoes

With tomato paste being one of the most consumed household foods, the impact of the continued consumption of adulterated products cannot be over emphasised. According to the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, while speaking at this year’s World Food Safety Day had stated that “unsafe food hinders development especially on low and middle income economies which lose around $95 billion in productivity associated with illness, disability and premature death suffered by workers.” 

According to him, the diseases resulting from in-take of contaminated food, Ehanire said over 200 diseases were caused by unsafe food consumption with children sharing about 40 per cent of the food borne disease burden. “Unsafe food causes one in every six deaths from diarrhea, a major killer of children of the age group” he stated.

A statement by the Director General of NAFDAC, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, in commemoration of the 2022 World Food Safety Day had noted that safe food was an essential component of sustainable development and contributes towards improvement of public health, poverty reduction, and increased food security.

Adeyeye was quoted in a statement saying “We know that food safety is a shared responsibility, and everyone has a role to play in ensuring we have safer food for better health: from growers to processors, to transporters, sellers, buyers, and those who prepare or serve food.

“Policy makers, educational institutions and workplaces, as well as consumers are not left out; food safety is the responsibility of all. We must all work together to help achieve safer food for better health.”

Enforcement with kid’s gloves

Despite the outcome of the survey which showed that 91.1 per cent of imported tomato paste in Nigerian markets are below standard and not healthy for consumption, as well as the resultant ban on the importation of the product into the country, imported tomato paste still flood Nigerian markets.

Findings show that importation of tomato paste in retail packs rather than wane has been increasing on a massive scale as Chinese importers and their Nigerian counterparts are massively importing contaminated tomato paste into the country.

THISDAY investigation revealed that the Chinese and their Nigerian cohorts are flooding the country with fake tomato paste with the aid of officials of NAFDAC, Nigeria Customs Service and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON).

It was learnt that a high percentage of tomato paste imports from China in retail packs are substandard and do not meet the prescribed quality standards and specification. Experts told THISDAY that food safety issues and attendant health implications need to be urgently addressed and challenges tackled to safe guard the health of the nation.

A local tomato paste manufacturer who craved anonymity told THISDAY that efforts to get the agencies to go after the merchants of death did not yield any result. “We have written several letters to inform NAFDAC of the overwhelming presence of fake products as well as to work with, in order to save innocent Nigerians and indigenous, trusted tomato paste manufacturers. Nothing is being done. We are at the forefront of promoting and encouraging the patronage of ‘made in Nigeria’ products and local manufacturing.” 

Imports strangling local production

Aside the health concerns, the importation of these substandard pastes seems to be having a negative impact on the local tomato paste industry. With more than half of the homegrown tomatoes in the country going to waste, many had been encouraged to go into the local production of tomato paste.

However the Nigerian manufacturers are beginning complain bitterly that the importers of adulterated tomato paste are running them out of business with many jobs at risk. As against the around 250 jobs that the importation of tomato paste brings into the job market, between 7,000 and 10,000 jobs created by the local industry is now at stake.

In a letter to the Minister of Health seen by THISDAY, local manufacturers of tomato paste had called on the federal government to urgently intervene to stem the tide of the influx of fake and substandard tomato paste that the Chinese and Nigerian importers are dumping in Nigeria for many years.

“Despite the fact that China and Vietnam where these tomato paste products are imported from do not allow the same tomato paste to be consumed in their various countries, they export it here to kill Nigerians gradually via cancer. It is a pity that Asians and their cohorts are leading the importation of banned tomato paste and other food products into our country.

“Unfortunately, the products are made of starch and colour as contained in a speech delivered by a former Director General of NAFDAC, Dr Paul Orhil at a tomato stakeholders’ forum held at NAFDAC auditorium in Lagos. A NAFDAC internal memo dated February 10, 2015 also indicates that 91.1 per cent of imported tomato paste are substandard, yet, no enforcement.

“The current NAFDAC Director General replied one of our letters and pleaded with us to give her time to act, but it is over six months now and we believe that her letter to us was to buy time, as we suspect that some NAFDAC cabals might be the brains behind the importation, because we have more than ever before high quantities of imported tomato paste in the markets as of today, than when we wrote to NAFDAC,” the letter stated.

Local manufacturers also called on the minister to declare zero tolerance on fake and substandard tomato paste and other food products, saying, “this will enable Nigeria get rid of the menace and the health and well-being of Nigerians will be assured. Be reminded sir that any harm or damage caused by the inefficiency of NAFDAC or any department under your ministry, you will surely share part of the blame.

“We suspect that some local and foreign importers in collaboration with some government agencies are bent on destroying the health of Nigerians by the dumping of these deadly products into our markets, just for the sake of their economy. Regrettably, NAFDAC silence or sleeping on duty has emboldened them to increase imports, an investigation in our markets will convince you. The effect of the consumption of these fake and substandard tomato paste and other food products is deadlier than the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

A tighter noose on local production

Despite the laxity granted the importers of substandard tomato paste in the country, local manufacturers say they have been held to cutthroat standard particularly by NAFDAC. Whilst the high enforcement of standards on local production had led to a higher quality of the locally made product, it had created an uneven ground. Thus the higher quality locally produced product cannot compete in the market with the cheaper substandard version that is imported into the country.

An official of another local manufacturer speaking with THISDAY said NAFDAC enforcement of standards for local manufacturers is very effective, “hence most locally produced tomato paste are of high quality. Unfortunately, they are not applying the same stringent enforcement measures on foreign and imported tomato paste, as the quantity of imports is far bigger than what local manufacturers struggle to produce.

“We are yet to utilize up to 15 per cent of our installed capacity due to the regulatory agencies inaction. We are worried because we believe in made in Nigeria, hence we never imported or marketed any food products, since inception we sell what we produce in our Nigerian factory. That is why we need the sector to be properly sanitized to truly safeguard the health of Nigerians, as we can never join them to kill Nigerians.

“Despite the huge amount of money we pay as NAFDAC charges, port charges and custom duties for every import of our raw materials, which is quite discouraging and frustrating, whereas importers of fake and substandard products pay little or nothing to government coffers, yet, NAFDAC prefers Nigerian manufacturers with about 7,000 to 10,000 workers to close their factories for import cabals that employs less than 250 Nigerians,” he stated.

Related Articles