Nigeria: Poisonous rice & you

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The fear of unwholesome food is wisdom and can make the difference between life and death.  As a nation that has refused to be self sufficient in food production; what do we expect? As people who value imported foods more than our own superior local varieties, what do we expect?

Our local rice varieties are by far superior to imported polished rice.  Our rice varieties may not look attractive, but they are richer in nutrients and have a low glyceamic index (this means you are less prone to developing diabetes from eating our rice). 

In this column, I have repeatedly written about the higher nutritional value of local rice varieties like Ofada and Abakaliki rice.  I had written the piece for this week, waiting to forward it when I watched an early morning program on the importation of “poisonous rice” into Nigeria.  It is indeed a serious issue that draws attention to a problem that needs thorough evaluation and handling.  This article is my own quota to educating readers about the issue and its possible implications healthwise.  As a people, we are prone to sensationalization, rash emotional displays and little action (even in the face of fatalities).  As we get more matured as a nation, we hope that will change. 

Meanwhile, this very same inaction has made us repeated victims of wicked foreigners who collude with greedy unpatriotic Nigerians.  The first thing that we have to note is that, poisonous and unwholesome food is not new in Nigeria or elsewhere for that matter!  The attention that poisonous rice is arousing is largely due to awareness (albeit belatedly) that is being created about it now.  In addition is the fact that rice has become a Nigerian staple food, thus creating fear in the mind of everybody.  How does raw rice become poisonous? There are two major ways. 

The first one is due to improper or longterm storage. The particular rice in question, 6,000tonnes,  became poisonous after being at sea for a longtime. The products (food aid to the war-torn country from Asia),  were said to have encountered delay during transit as a result of sea storm, thereby becoming contaminated. 

The Sierra Leonean authorities were said to have carried out tests on them, which proved that the rice was no longer fit for human consumption, before they were approached by the unscrupulous Nigerian businessmen who offered to buy them for shipment to their country.  Rice being a grain is highly susceptible to the formation of aflatoxins by moulds.  These moulds develop after improper or longterm storage as I just mentioned. 

Aflatoxins are highly carcinogenic and cause cancer of the liver.  The poisonous rice is said to have found its way into markets in Kaduna, Sokoto and other neighbouring states, consequently, causing fear within communities.  This kind of poisonous rice looks darker than normal with whitish ones in it (looking like it had been soaked in water and then dried).  The rice does now run singly when poured from a bowl, but has many grains clumping together.  It is usually easy to recognise this kind of contaminated rice if it is not treated (businessmen sometimes clean the rice and use chemicals to treat it to make it look fresh).  The rice can be made to look normal by bleaching, polishing and adding mineral oil, despite being tainted by aflatoxin B1.  

An example of such treated rice was in Guandong China in December 2000 when rice which had been stored for 17years, was marketed as new rice! A northeast China food processor polished up and sold tonnes of the 17 years old rice. This leads us to the second way that rice can become poisonous.  This is through the use of poisonous chemicals to enhance the look of the rice.  As you can see from the Guandong case, poisonous rice can come from a mixture of the two i.e. aflatoxins from storage and chemicals from treating it. 

Indeed, chemicals as often used to mask contaminated rice.  Such was the case when “Poisonous rice” found in Guangzhou was discovered to be an adulterated polished rice variety with mineral white wax mixed in, sold by unlawful money-grabbing profiteers.  That particular rice caused acute poisoning, serious diarrhea and did great harm to people’s health.   A chinese firm, Wanshunhua Feed Co. Ltd was said to have processed 28,000 tonnes of poisonous rice for sale!!  At other times, rice is treated simply to make it more attractive to the buyer.  An example of that was several years ago, in Eastern China, when rice was polished with industrial oil to make it more attractive.  Industrial oils usually contain chemicals which may be toxic to humans. 

Despite the fact that the examples I mentiond occurred in China; they are not alone.  Poisonous rice has been found in Pakistan, Japan and Indonesia to name a few.  This June, at least 25 people were reported to have died after drinking contaminated rice wine on an Indonesian resort island.  They included four foreign tourists.

Unfortunately, we do not have an established food distribution channel.  Most people buy rice in small quantities, which they cannot relate to any packaging.  This robs them of the knowledge of the origin of the rice that they have purchased. In the face of this chaos, we have been extremely lucky in the number of incidents of mass food poisoning, compared to some other countries.  Notwithstanding, there
is need to establish a proper food distribution channel with close watch on the food distribution channels, grain stocks, processing, transport and marketing in the way food safety is well protected.  The high turnover of the food purchase/consumption pattern has protected us in some ways.  People should endeavour to acquire food sanitation knowledge and improve their awareness level in other to protect themselves from poisonous food.  

Poisonous/ tainted food can cause painful agonizing deaths, the manufacturers or merchants of poisonous food should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.  This will serve as a deterent.  Meanwhile, if you have to eat polished rice, look at it very well.  I favour the local varieties.




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