Nigeria: Food Poisoning: How Many More Will Have to Die?



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With the increasing reported cases of food poisoning in the country as a result of preserving food items with harmful chemicals, there is a new and sustainable sensitisation and education of farmers and food dealers on the danger of using harmful agrochemicals. Segun Awofadeji writes 

Worried by the prevalence and reckless sale and use of banned toxic agrochemicals nationwide for preserving foods like beans and other grains, the National Agency for Food, Drugs and Administrative Control [NAFDAC] has taken decisive steps to check the ugly practice and restore order to the non-observance of the withholding period of storage after application of the appropriate agrochemicals before   consumption of the grains. The agency’s move is also meant to restore order to the chaotic agrochemicals distribution network across the country.
Reports by the world Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that at least  three million cases of acute poisoning and 20,000 death occur  annually in the world  due food to exposure to pesticides. The report said there is a rapid annual increase in sales, use and dependence on pesticides in developing countries including Nigeria.
The recent rise in food prices, especially with cereal grains like rice, maize, sorghum, millet and pulses like cowpeas has increased the need for production of more food in short terms so that food is not out of the reach of the ordinary Nigerian. After production, it is estimated that up to 40 per cent of harvested food can be lost if adequate storage and preservation measures are not employed. The need to store and preserve food which has been harvested is therefore as important as its production.
However, the storage and preservation of grains and pulses is only valuable in meeting food storages, if after storage the harvested produce is still fit for human consumption and poses no health hazard.
Last February, the House Committee on Health alerted NAFDAC of a health hazard incidence in Yobe State which was alleged to be due to the preservation of beans with chemicals. Press reports about the hospitalisation of   students from Government Girls Secondary School, Doma in Gombe State, while in Cross River State, over 112 people were hospitalised with two children allegedly died. Both incidents allegedly occurred after a meal of beans.  The House Committee agreed that it is therefore important that the level of attention paid to the production of food in the field should be the same given to the product during storage because unsafe food can cause serious health problems.
Last May, NAFDAC in collaboration with Croplife Nigeria, representative of the plant science industry in the country, took a major practical step by convening a stakeholders sensitisation workshop on “safe and responsible use of agrochemicals.” The sensitisation parley was simultaneously organised in Taraba, Bauchi and Gombe States, targeting grain merchants, farmers, agricultural extension workers and other stakeholders involved in the use of agrochemicals.
Addressing participants at the workshop in Gombe, the Director–General of NAFDAC, Professor Dora Akunyili vehemently  warned that farmers, grain merchants and the general  public should desist from using banned toxic  agrochemicals such as Gammallin or overdose or wrong application of approved pesticides for preserving beans and other grains.
According to her, “food poisoning arising from   the consumption of beans and its products like moi-moi has become a serious health hazard which must be addressed so that it does not become like the fake drug incidence which has killed and maimed millions of Nigerians.” She stressed that “seed treatment is to ensure that seeds are preserved until the next planting season whereas the grains for consumption require short term storage with different type of agrochemicals.”
She stressed the need for all stakeholders to join hands to tackle the problems of food poisoning arising from the use of banned toxic agrochemicals for preserving beans and other grains observing that the non-observance of the withholding period of storage after application of the appropriate chemical   before consumption of the grain as well as mixtures of pesticides applied at the same time could also   lead to ugly situations.
The major role of NAFDAC amongst other things, she pointed out, is to regulate and control the importation, exportation,  manufacture, distribution, advertisement, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, bottled water and chemicals under which Agrochemicals are considered.
THISDAY checks revealed that NAFDAC investigation into the ugly incidences in Yobe, Cross River  and   Gombe States showed that the reported death of Mallam Bukar Garba was not confirmed to be due to inhalation of chemicals used to preserve the beans while in Cross River State where it was reported in March this year that many people in Bekwarra Local Government Area suffered from food poisoning  after a meal of moi-moi and beans, NAFDAC report revealed that  the offensive beans were sourced from Taraba and not Benue State  as initially claimed.
Akunyili said laboratory analysis reports of the moi-moi and beans from the homes of the victims and beans from the open market in Benue and Taraba State “contained outrageously high organophosphates, carbamates, fenithrothion and chloropyrifos which are highly toxic pesticides. They must have been used either higher doses then recommended or applied wrongly.”
NAFDAC Director- General said that the reported death in Gombe state in February 2008 could not be proved to be due to consumption of pesticides contaminated beans. “NAFDAC collected samples of grains including beans, millet, guinea corn, maize and groundnuts from Kaltungo and Gombe markets and tested them in the laboratories, and the results indicated that the grains were free from pesticides”, she also revealed.
However, in April 2008 several National dailies reported 120 students of Government Girls Secondary School, Doma in Gombe metropolis were rushed to the Gombe Specialist Hospital after consuming a meal of beans that was suspected to have been preserved with poisonous chemicals - 10 of these students were reported to be in Critical condition. Samples of the cooked beans consumed, samples of uncooked beans, palm oil, onions, maggi, salt and other condiments used in cooking the beans were also tested in NAFDAC Laboratories to ascertain the cause of the problem.
The result of the analysis showed that samples of the cooked beans and the uncooked beans contained outrageously high levels of lindane, an organ chlorinated pesticide that was banned under the 1989 Rotterdam convention. Lindane, also commonly known as Gammallin affects the nervous system producing a range of symptoms from nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness to seizures, convulsions and sometimes death. The analysis further showed that the sample of the uncooked beans also contained endosulphan in concentrations within acceptable limits. Endosulphan is a highly restricted pesticide under the Rotterdam convention and has similar actions to Gammallin and should always be used cautiously.
From the foregoing, Professor Akunyili said NAFDAC in its commitment to enforce its mandate has put in place the statutory mechanism for the control of chemicals nationwide  which include establishment of import permit procedure  for the control of importation of chemicals including pesticides; chemicals monitoring division nationwide to monitor the distribution, storage, sale and use   of chemicals  including pesticides; well equipped and maintained laboratories of international standards for analysis of pesticide and formulations and pesticide residue on food and  chemicals manned by NAFDAC staff trained by IAEA, among others. While therefore appealing to Agricultural extension workers, farmers, grain merchants and other stakeholders to get acquainted with the correct application, she also charged agricultural extension workers who are closest to the farmers to ensure that only registered agrochemicals are used.
NAFDAC on its part, she pointed out, will continue to use public enlightenment programmes and other regulatory measures to achieve effective control of agrochemical usage nationwide, calling on “all manufacturers and importers of agrochemicals  that have not registered their products to come forward and register them now.”
Minister of Health, Alhaji Muhammad Lawal said that premium attention should be put in “building safety factors into our food production and storage processes,” pointing out that food safety is becoming an issue of increasing concern globally and renewed interest at improving safety measures are at the centre of such initiatives as EurepGAP and GlobalGAP.”
“These initiatives” according to him, “are aimed not only at safety but also traceability of food, and indeed the exporters of certain food items from Nigeria will find out they have to comply with such standards for their produce to be acceptable”.
The Minister who hoped that the outcome of the workshop should bring immense benefits to all stakeholders in the joint efforts to improve food safety said “Government will support any recommendation(s) which are directed at minimising harm to the people or even loss of lives as a result of the use of these products”.
Governor Muhammad Danjuma Goje of Gombe State said the recent reported cases in which several people were admitted into hospital after eating a meal of beans in the state could have been averted if those involved had avoided the wrong application of agrochemicals for storage and preservation of food crops warning that “we cannot afford a recurrence of this.”
He hoped that all those attending the workshop would not only benefit, but also act as propagators to impact the knowledge and information acquired to those that have not had the opportunity to be at the stakeholders meeting in Gombe. He called on all farmers and grain merchants that they should not in the process of maximising profit by stocking grains for off season sales compromise the safety of food they produce or trade in.
The Gombe State Coordinator of NAFDAC, Abdulsalam Ozigis in the words of former governor of Benue State, Dr. George Akume told THISDAY that “the current war against reckless sale and use of banned toxic agrochemicals in the country for preserving beans and grains is a bigger and more challenging battle than the war in Iraq and Darfur, and Insha Allah, we will succeed”. On the Gombe food poisoning incident, the NAFDAC coordinator said that part of the agency’s  recommendation to forestall future occurrence include the need for good agriculture practice (GAP) and good  storage  practice by  farmers, grain merchants and suppliers of beans and other grains in the state.
He also stressed the need for continuous health sensitisation, education, enlightenment of the farmers, grain merchants and suppliers on the proper use  and consequences of misapplication of permitted pesticides, agrochemicals or engaging in the use of banned pesticides, agrochemicals adding that there was need to step up the sensitisation to the grassroots level  in the state with the combined efforts of the state Ministries of Agriculture, ADP, Health, Education, LGA, Information and NAFDAC to prevent occurrence in the future.
NAFDAC, he noted has solicited the assistance and support of the royal fathers “in the fight against this obnoxious practice of misuse, illegal use and use of banned agrochemicals.” He pointed out that “NAFDAC will continue to need them as strong advocates in the fight to sanitise the farm produce storage and preservation sector particularly as in beans and other grains.”



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