The Standards Organisation of Nigeria's enforcement team recently swooped on purveyors of sub-standard sugar and flour. Jonathan Eze writes that the development will help to curb the menace of unworthy products in Nigeria.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in many foods. It is important for normal vision, the immune system and reproduction. It also helps the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs of the human body.
Hence, consuming pasta, sugar and other flour-based products without vitamin A fortification is believed to contribute to blindness, maternal mortality and other poor outcomes in pregnancy and lactation, including diminishing the ability to fight infections, thus the regulation on Vitamin A fortification through food vehicles like sugar, flour and flour based products like pasta.
So, as part of its efforts to protect Nigerians from the hazards associated with consumption of such products, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) enforcement team recently swooped on locations and outlets where such products were being sold or warehoused and confiscated them.
These included the North-east States of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe as well as Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi, Kano and Jigawa in the North-west.
A similar operation also took place in different parts of Lagos, with value running into billions of naira confiscated. The operations which were carried out simultaneously in all the states, covered warehouses, stores, markets and trucks in transit following classified information from sister security agencies, patriotic Nigerians and the results of SON nationwide market surveillance activities.
Director General of the (SON) Mr. Osita Aboloma, said he was inundated with security reports and consumer complaints on smuggling and circulation of large consignments of unfortified sugar and flour based products across the country.
These according to him, was in clear contravention of the country's regulations on fortifying sugar, flour based products and vegetable oil with Vitamin A as specified in the Nigerian Industrial Standards for the products.
The regulation according to Aboloma was in order to protect Nigerians from Vitamin A deficiency, which has been established as the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness.
In his words, "About 250,000 to 500,000 malnourished children in the developing world go blind each year from a deficiency of Vitamin A, (VAD) while about half of them die within a year of becoming blind".
The SON DG posited that VAD is said to contribute to maternal mortality and other poor outcomes in pregnancy and lactation, including diminishing the ability to fight infections, thus the regulation on Vitamin A fortification through food vehicles like sugar, flour and flour based products like pasta.
The seized products, he said, have been confirmed not to be registered as required by law, carrying misleading labelings, not fortified with Vitamin A, while many of the consignments were suspected to have been smuggled into the country for inability to provide necessary import documentation.
SON Director of Operations, Felix Nyado, who coordinated the nationwide raid, told THISDAY that products including over four truck loads of unfortified and substandard Sugar, and three truck loads of unfortified, wrongly labeled and suspected substandard Flour and Pasta valued at several millions of Naira were confiscated across the eigh states of Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi, Kano, Jigawa, Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.
The suspected substandard, unfortified and wrongly labeled imported sugar include Nardini, Coplasca, Carolo, Arapora, USJ Ajoao, Usina Santa Isabel, Cooper and Curpersucar brands, while some of the flour based products apprehended were Oba Makarna and Selva Spaghetti, Chef's Choice, riboca, Serina and Safina pasta among others.
He reiterated the determination of SON to sustain the nationwide mop up of all unfortified food products in circulation against the requirements of the Nigerian Industrial Standards wherever they are found, in the interest of the nation, particularly children and mothers.
Nyado admonished product distributors, wholesalers and retailers to join the quality vanguard by avoiding stocking of substandard and injurious products in order to discourage the importers of such products.
A total of 10 suspects arrested during the exercises have been interrogated and are helping SON and the security agencies in their investigations, while samples of the seized products are being tested at SON internationally accredited food and micro nutrient laboratories in Lagos.
"They will be duly charged to court on conclusion of investigations in line with the SON Act 14 of 2015" the statement said.
In the Lagos operation , SON operatives moved swiftly, sealed a warehouse and shops stocked with uncertified pasta, flour and sugar in different areas of the state, and also raided major markets in the.
Referring to the Lagos Operation, Aboloma said the products were smuggled in with no import documentation and registration numbers, adding that they could lead to dangerous health hazards to unsuspecting consumers who buy them.
Aboloma added that the enforcement exercise would continue as a way of ensuring that only goods that meet the minimum requirement of the Nigeria Industrial Standards (NIS) were sold in the country.
"As far as we are concerned, these products do not meet our standard specifications. There are no documentations to show how they got into the country. They are not supposed to be on our shelves", Aboloma said.
He said the sale of uncertified pasta, flour and sugar in the country is particularly worrisome considering that there is a government policy on their fortification with Vitamin A as a way of preserving the sight of Nigerians.
"Flour, pasta and sugar are foods that Nigerians consume regularly and if they are not fortified with the necessary vitamins, the Nigerian consumers would be prone to blindness and other sight problems", he said.
The irony of this ugly trend is that these expired products were shipped into the country by local importers. Why would some merchants indulge in the trade malpractice of importing into the country products that have grave health and mutational implications for Nigerians?
This is one of the many concerns of the current administration of this agency.
It has been daily confronted with unethical trade and manufacturing practices that leaves the lives and welfare of Nigerians endangered, despite its regular and consistent campaigns against such practices.
Imagine for example, shipping into the country, products with propensity to endanger the lives of innocent consumers, like some of them losing their sight on account of the low quality profile of the products they have consumed.
In fact, statistics show that about 250,000 to 500,000 malnourished children in the developing world go blind each year from deficiency of Vitamin A, (VAD) while about half of them die within a year of becoming blind". Nigeria accounts for a sizeable proportion of this number.
This is in spite of the fact that there is a government policy on the fortification of sugar and flour with vitamin A to enable the teeming population of Nigerians has healthy eyes. Thought the policy has been in place for years, it has been obeyed more in the breach than otherwise, thus exposing Nigerians to blindness and other sight-related diseases. This is a stack reality that stares the SON in the face, but which the agency is standing firmly against.
Through its efforts, lot of Nigerian companies have complied with the policy of fortification of flour and flour-based products with vitamin A, but not so with the firms responsible for most of the imported variants.
These imported brands have short shelf life, but Nigerians tend to be attracted by their colourful packaging as well as comparatively low prices, but without appreciating their health implications.
On his part, Deputy Director, Head of Market Surveillance, Suleiman Issa, added that the campaign to eradicate substandard imported sugar, flour and flour products in the country, would continue, assuring Nigerians that wherever these products are found, they would be removed.
"These products do not have product registration on them for us to know that they have undergone the necessary testing and certification. I will advise Nigerians to look out for the labelling, registration numbers of SON and NAFDAC.
"Any product that is not certified and is smuggled is very risky and unwholesome for consumption. Any shop where we see even a pack of imported non-conforming flour-based products would be removed, we will hold the owner responsible until he takes us to the source", he said.
In his words, "The fortification is a mandatory policy of the federal government. Any sugar, flour or pasta that must be consumed in Nigeria must be fortified with Vitamin A. This is why this exercise is very important to the consumers.
He advised importers, vendors to desist from selling flour-based products that can endanger people's health.
He said the SON's effort to stamp out substandard products in the country, required the collective efforts of Nigerians, urging market women particularly, not to patronise uncertified brands.
"This is just the beginning. We will continue the exercise, and that is why we are urging Nigerians to be wary of unwholesome imported products. We are aware that some of these products are smuggled in the dead of the night using unofficial routes. We will continue to checkmate those behind their importation", he said.
According to him, the SON would intensify its efforts at those routes where the products are brought in, while also sensitise the Nigerian populace, on the implication of patronising and consumption of uncertified imported products.
"He advised shop owners not to shelve or sell unwholesome imported pasta, flour, salt and other products."
Earlier, Aboloma said the importation of unwholesome products was a way of killing local industries, in addition to constituting health and economic risks.
He said most of such products dumped in Nigeria cannot be sold in the country of origin, but are shipped to Africa and smuggled in through unauthorised routes.