Few months ago, officials of the Lagos State government disclosed the arrest of three butchers accused of selling tuberculosis-infected meats at illegal slaughter slabs in some parts of the state.
But beyond the euphoria of the arrest, via-a-vis the fight against the sale of unwholesome meats in the state, what the government didn't tell the public is that right under its nose, especially at its accredited abattoir in Oko-Oba, Agege, some unfit cattle still find their way to the slaughter slab and subsequently sold to the public. The Kara section of the abattoir is a beehive of activities.
Cattle of various sizes and shapes are put on sale, giving the buyers a variety of choices. Most of the sellers stay close to their cattle while their marketers move afar to woo and sometimes cajole customers to buy from their masters. For the record, the Oko-Oba Agege Abattoir was commissioned on September 15, 1992 by former vice president Augustus Aikhomu. Unverified report has it that about 3, 000 cattle are slaughtered on a daily basis; hence, it is one of the biggest slaughter slabs in Nigeria. Investigation by Sunday Trust reveals that the activities of men and women who ply their trade at the abattoir expose the public to a lot of hazards, to put it mildly.
Despite the contentious issues, especially as it concerns the hygienic nature of the abattoir, stakeholders who spoke to Sunday Trust on the general wellbeing of the people, the environment and the state of meats being sold to the public, insisted that things were not as bad as consumers would be made to believe at first sight, saying that the situation was improving.
Saminu Tanko Sadiq, secretary of the United Butchers Association (UBA), said that in addition to other issues, the supervisory role of the state government on the activities of butchers and cattle sellers had improved and positively affected other segments of the abattoir. He, however, revealed that before now, the situation was even worse, adding that policies such as the introduction of cooling vans to convey meats to distant places, as well as the certification for slaughter slabs and activities therein by veterinarians had put to rest, doubts over the hygienic and health status of cattle.
"The truth is that some of our members are still getting adjusted to most of the policies being introduced by the state government. You know it is always difficult to change people's ways of life overnight. But you can see that instead of the wooden wheelbarrow (Omolanke) we normally used to convey our meats from the slaughtering slab to the new butchers' slab, we now use tricycles designated for that. The sanitary situation of the abattoir has also improved. Both the government and the contractors handling all of these activities are doing their best," Sadiq said.
However, investigation by Sunday Trust revealed that Sadiq's claims are begging for verifiable proof. It was discovered that, contrary to his assertion that most of their members now make use of government-designated apartments for meat vendors, only few of them were seen using those areas. It appears that many of the vendors still prefer to display their meats on the bare floor while some would rather make do with certain unofficial places where they are already used to.
Also speaking with Sunday Trust, financial secretary of the Yoruba Butchers Association (Oko-Oba Abattoir), Rafiu Adeshina, said the butchers operating within the abattoir were doing their best in obeying government policies that guide butchering activities. Just like Momodu and Braimah, Adeshina insisted that all the cattle being slaughtered in the abattoir, including the gurugu, were fit for consumption, saying the latter only get tired as a result of long distance journeys.
"You know that most of these cattle come from the far North. Their cases are like that of a normal human-being who is trekking but get exhausted. If the person rests a little and finds anything that can aid his or her movement, he can regain strength and continue to move on. It is not as if such cattle are not good for consumption," Adeshina said.
Similarly, the Sarkin Fulani Abattoir, Alhaji Bello Dan Mubaffa, who spoke through an interpreter, told this reporter that inhabitants of the abattoir had always followed all policies of the government, especially as it relates to sanitation and periodic cleaning of the abattoir. He, however, lamented that despite the willingness of the people to abide by state government's policies and laws, government had done little to help their plight.
"The government is so powerful that nobody can fight it. That is why we have always abided by its regulations on environmental sanitation and the payment of taxes. For us, the environment is okay for our business; but it can always be better. Though we are aware that government has contractors handling some of these things on its behalf, but we would appreciate it if government carries us along while making its decisions. This is because we live here and know this place quite well; after all, we are major contributors to the state's internally generated revenue," Dan Mubaffa said.
Stakeholders are apprehensive of possible outbreak of diseases
The Lagos State abattoir, Oko-Oba, is reputed to be the biggest in Nigeria; with about 3,000 cattle being slaughtered on a daily basis. Sadiq, however, said the official record of his association was about 1,200 cattle between Monday and Wednesday, and 1, 500 between Thursday and Saturday).
But observers have, over the years, expressed misgivings over the poor sanitary situation of the abattoir. It is apparent that not all the cattle being slaughtered on its slabs are fit for consumption. Experts even said the situation had been compounded by the unhygienic approach often adopted in preparing these meats.
"It is a worrisome development we have had to complain about for many years. Our greatest fear is that the abattoir continues to exist like a keg of gunpowder waiting to explode with serious health and environmental implications for the people. Funny enough, meats from this abattoir are not only consumed in Lagos, there are many people who patronise the abattoir from neighbouring states. This simply means that it might be very difficult to curtail the spread if there is an outbreak of a serious disease," Dr Mobolaji Alao, state secretary, Nigerian Veterinary Medical Association (NVMA), Lagos State chapter, said.
Speaking further, Alao said: "Our association has always been at the forefront of improving meat hygiene, which we obviously believe has a direct impact on the health of Lagosians. What is being practised at the moment is a far cry from what should be. This is because Lagosians are being made to consume unwholesome and unhealthy dairy products. You will agree with me that the level of stress in Lagos is enormous, and that you are now consuming unhealthy products can only make it worse. Already, we are talking about a drop in human life expectancy by the moment or by the second. This kind of development can only reduce the life expectancy of our people."
The NVMA official said the association's areas of disagreement with government included but not limited to issues of inspection, quality of animals being slaughtered, transportation and meat storage. He said all of these issues were yet to be attended to.
"The rule is that any animal that must be slaughtered must be healthy. Animals that are pregnant are also not supposed to be slaughtered, but we see a lot of this anomaly happening on a daily basis. There are some people who are into doggeries. They go around buying foetuses. It is a wrong practice. Also, there ought to be ultrasound or quick pregnancy test to ascertain the pregnancy status of animals. In developed countries, when an animal is discovered to be pregnant, it is removed from others and taken to the Lairage.
"The second issue is that of drug administration. In all the drugs being administered to animals, the issue of withdrawal period (the amount of pills you give to an animal before it could be slaughtered for consumption) and edible tissues (21 days) means that after using this type of drug on animals, you must wait for 21 days before the beef or egg from such animal is eaten. All these withdrawal pills and edible tissues are of different types and categories; but what we see is a situation whereby all of these are often not being adhered to.
"You find a situation where an animal that is just being treated for one particular ailment or the other is taken to the slab for slaughter. And when that happens, all these pills given to the animal and which are still fresh in its bowel eventually end up in people's kidneys. These are unwholesome practices. What the kidney does is to break down all hard substances into smaller particles so that they can be excreted easily.
"But when these pills get into the consumer's kidney, it becomes difficult to break down the particles and invariably affect the kidney. Some of these pills are carcinogenic. They cause cancer. There are some of these drugs that have been banned from being imported to the country because of their side effects; but somehow they still find their way into the country. When such drugs are applied and their effects are still strong in the animals, and such animals are killed with the effects transferred to the consumers, it really portends great danger," Dr Alao said.
Alao and his NVMA are not the only ones who are worried over the dire consequences of unhygienic meats being displayed for sale at the abattoir. Dr Olutayo Babalobi, a renowned veterinary doctor and lecturer in the Department of Veterinary/Public Health and Preventive Medicine, University of Ibadan, has greater concerns. Babalobi mentioned the many side effects of consuming unhealthy meats, which he said some butchers ignorantly expose the public to.
"From the public health angle, there are some animal diseases that are not as dangerous as others. But among the most dangerous ones that these cattle suffer from, and can as well be transmitted to men, is tuberculosis. There can be animal tuberculosis of the lung and the intestine. There could also be tuberculosis in the milk when you drink it. We also have what is known as brucellosis. It normally comes from drinking the unsterilised milk from an animal that is brucellosis infected. When you look at the brucellosis symptoms in a human being, it looks like malaria.
"When a person contacts it and he or she goes to the hospital, he is most likely to be treated for malaria, then typhoid. But except one does a laboratory test it may be difficult to ascertain that such a person is suffering from brucellosis. These two are the most common. There are other ones like anthrax, E. coli, Salmonellosis, Taeniasis and mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, BSE), which has not been reported in Nigeria. It does affect people's brain, but it has been reported in other parts of the world," Babalobi said.
The don noted that any of the aforementioned diseases could be guarded against if animals are subjected to both ante and post-mortem examinations. According to him, it is the responsibility of the veterinarians to carry out both the ante and post mortem tests.
"There are a number of processes to identify and confirm meat hygiene. These processes apply to all forms of animals, not just cattle. There is what we call ante-mortem inspection, which comes before a cow is slaughtered at all. When animals are brought into the abattoir, they need to be kept in a Lairage for physical inspection. At this stage, the veterinarians who have been trained on what to look out for will inspect whether the animal is fit for slaughter or not. There is also the post-mortem, which comes after the animal has been slaughtered. If an animal is detected to be suffering from any disease and is discovered to be unsafe for public consumption, such an animal must be condemned," Babalobi said.
Asked if it is easy to classify a cow with a gaunt look or one that already gasps for breath even before slaughtering as unfit for consumption like some cases observed at the abattoir by this reporter, Dr Babalobi said those were indeed normal symptoms of a cow that is sick and feverish.
"Under normal circumstances, such a cow should be separated from others while an ante-mortem test is then carried out on it. That would determine if such a cow can still respond to treatment or it should simply be condemned. Normally, when you see an animal that is gasping for breath, that is a symptom of an ailment, which can be an infectious, or a disease of public health importance," Babalobi said.
Giving reasons that may be adduced for unwholesome practices at the abattoir, the two veterinarians identified poor reward system by government to those whose cattle may be condemned after medical investigations, a development they said often deters the butchers from willingly subjecting their cattle to test for fear of losing them. They also attributed understaffing as another major problem.
"Our own figure shows that about 3,000 cattle are being slaughtered at the abattoir on a daily basis. But even if we go by the estimate given by the butchers association, which it ranges between 1,000 and 1500, we can simply divide 12 veterinarians with 1, 500 cattle being slaughtered, and we get 125 cattle. Do you think one veterinarian can effectively supervise the slaughtering of 125 cattle in a spate of three hours? We all know that butchering takes place early in the morning; that is between the hours of 7am and 10 am? So how do you expect one veterinarian to carry out effective test on 135 cattle within that period? And we are talking about ante and post-mortem test? That simply tells you that the place is highly understaffed," Alao said.
The situation is different elsewhere
A comparative check on the internet on what guides inspection and meat hygiene in United States, for instance, also revealed that the Lagos abattoir still has a long way to go in conforming to international best practices.
While writing on the report; USDA regulations for slaughter houses as published on eHow website, Falinia Adkins, noted that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the World Organisation for Animal Health regulate most slaughterhouses in the United States; and its regulation covers employment of personnel, pre-slaughter, slaughter, stunning, gates, pens and walkway regulations, considerations, among others.
The terms binding on recruitment of personnel, pre-slaughter and slaughter regulations noted thus: "The USDA and the World Organisation for Animal Health require that a veterinarian be on site at all times, and that personnel handling, herding, stunning, moving, transporting, or otherwise working with live animals be patient, considerate, competent and familiar with USDA guidelines. Additionally, all handlers must be experienced and knowledgeable with the animals' behaviour patterns.
"Pre-slaughter regulations are mainly concerned with transporting, herding and gating animals to be slaughtered. Moreover, each animal is inspected for disease, injury and welfare before they are taken into the slaughtering facility. Any animal that is suspected of illness is killed immediately.
"Slaughter regulations take into consideration the type of animal and its behaviour. For example, equipment used for chickens differ from equipment used for cattle. However, all equipment and procedures used at the time of slaughter are designed to kill without unnecessary harm or distress to the animal. Furthermore, animals in groups or herds are not restrained, and the positioning of individual animals must be upright."
Hide-and-seek game at the ministry
Interestingly, the Lagos State government has policies guiding the slaughtering of cattle in its abattoirs; but stakeholders said the greatest challenge was the inability to implement them. State officials who were approached by this reporter did little to disprove this notion. When Sunday Trust sent a letter to the Office of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, it became an uphill task to get a response as the issue kept being transferred from the Permanent Secretary's office to the Public Relations Unit and the Office of the Commissioners.
After a hide-and-seek game that lasted for weeks, the state Commissioner for Agriculture and Co-operative, Prince Gbolahan Lawal eventually agreed to speak, although with a caveat: "All you have to discuss with me must not be beyond three to four minutes because I have a scheduled appointment with His Excellency." He was in the company of the ministry's public relations officer, Bisi Olufuwa. The four-minute encounter with the commissioner went thus:
Government's policies at Oko-Oba abattoir and level of enforcement
"Issues that have to do with the implementation of state policies on regulations in abattoirs and illegal ones are all in the news, so if you are asking me about them now, it could be because you are not up-to-date.
The Lagos State abattoir is a work in progress. We are doing everything to make it better than we met it. Work has started. It is in phases. We have had our survey and the implementation has begun in phases. We have engaged the butchers' association, the association of cattle herders; we are all working together. Government has put lots of mechanism in place to regulate activities of ram sellers and the butchers. We also have veterinarians at the abattoir who carry out tests on the cattle before they are slaughtered. We have a whole lot of innovations being introduced, which is also extending to the general health and environment wellbeing of the people. So it is a work in progress," he said.
The limited number of veterinarians at the abattoir and fitness of meats
"How long has the abattoir been there? I ask you? He retorted.
So, you expect a sudden change. We like to work and let the people see the transformation going on. We don't talk while we are working. You can see that the government has been doing its best to make it better than it is. We have been engaging all the stakeholders, including ram sellers and butchers associations. I know you are recording me. Thank you very much; I want to go now," he concluded.
In an editorial published in September 2013, Daily Trust recommended to government at all levels to draw up a programme to sanitise the operation of abattoirs in the country. One of such programmes would include engaging "inspectors from relevant establishments to monitor the activities at abattoirs daily to ensure that the proper things are done with regard to the quality of meat processed for consumption, as well as the general sanitation of such places.
"It would be a good idea if some industries are located near abattoirs to make use of the by-products generated in these facilities instead of the current practice of allowing them to rotten and pollute the environment. One possibility could be fertilizer plants, which could have the effect of addressing, at least partly, the fertilizer shortage in the country on a sustainable basis," the newspaper recommended.
Whether the Lagos State government and its officials would hearken to such admonition remains to be seen in the days ahead.