Regulators should strengthen food control systems and surveillance

With the slogan, ‘Food safety is everyone’s business’, this year’s World Food Safety Day (WFSD) offers another opportunity for stakeholders in a country where, according to the World Health Organisation, more than 200,000 persons die of food poisoning annually, with contamination as the main cause. Celebrated every year on June 7, the idea is to be prepared for incidents that affect food safety, according to the WHO. “Governments can commit to developing or updating national intervention plans for food emergencies, strengthening food control systems, increasing surveillance and coordination capacity, and improving communication with food industry and the public.”

Consumers are enjoined “to be aware of how to report or respond to food safety incidents and understand the consequences of unforeseen events at home, preparing themselves to react appropriately.”With more than 20,000 deaths annually arising from exposure to food pesticides, children inclusive, 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. 

 For years, the issue of food safety has posed a daunting challenge hence an urgent need for strict compliance with laws on food preservation. Experts have identified improper use of agro chemicals and pesticides to control pests on agricultural products and grains as one of the causes of the rising cases of food poisoning in the country. The consumption of food grains laced with pesticides by vendors to preserve their shelf life and protect them from destruction by pests puts many people at risk of gastro-intestinal disorders and some types of cancers.  

Nigeria must contend with the problem of food-borne diseases with their attendant social, economic and health costs. The essence of the National Policy on Food Hygiene and Safety, launched in 2000 as an integral part of the Nigerian National Health 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. For those with particular high cyanide level, mere exposure to volatile substances while being processed can cause some health disorders. 

Foodborne diseases affect disproportionately the most vulnerable of society, the infants, young children, pregnant women, and the elderly. Therefore, the Federal Ministry of Health, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and 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 agrochemicals to boost or preserve farm produce.

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