Heeding NAFDAC’s warning on food preservation

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The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) recently warned Nigerians, especially food merchants, to desist from preserving food items with harmful chemicals. The agency expressed particular concerns about the increasingly rampant use of small volume dichlorvos, sold as Sniper, which has been banned since 2019.

The warning came on the heels of a trending video showing individuals using hazardous chemicals to preserve food items, such as grains, stockfish and crayfish. According to a statement signed by NAFDAC’s Director General, Professor Mojisola Adeyeye, “The misuse of dichlorvos poses significant risks to human health, manifesting in both short-term and long-term consequences.”

The statement added that “long-term exposure can result in severe health implications, including developmental abnormalities in offspring, memory loss, reduced fertility, and potential carcinogenic effects. These adverse effects highlight the importance of adhering to safety guidelines to mitigate the risks associated with dichlorvos exposure.”

This commendable caution is not only apt but long overdue. The indiscriminate use of industrial chemicals to prolong the shelf life of food items has been a long-standing practice in the country, despite their hazardous effects on human health. Chemicals such as formalin, typically used for preserving biological specimens, have been reportedly used on fish and meat. Similarly, calcium carbide, a chemical used in industrial processes, is sometimes applied to ripen fruits faster. These substances are not intended for human consumption and pose significant health risks. Indeed, their presence in our food supply is a gross violation of safety standards and an unacceptable risk to public health.

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The situation is particularly worrisome, as many members of the public are ignorant of the unwholesome activity of food traders whose major interest is to protect their food from spoilage and maximise profit at all costs. The many reported cases of food poisoning may not be unconnected to this unscrupulous practice of using banned and harmful chemicals for the preservation of food items.

While it is good to safeguard food items from the attack of pests and other destructive organisms, the NAFDAC alert is one that all Nigerians must take seriously. According to the agency’s Director of Veterinary Medicine and Applied Products (VMAP), Dr Rametu Momodu, the use of chemicals, such as pesticides to protect grains, is not an approved practice. She warned that pesticide residues usually remain on or in the food, adding that washing or soaking the food does not take away the danger as the harmful substance would have soaked into it.

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Momodu further disclosed that there are approved fumigants that can be used in line with their manufacturers’ specifications. She also noted that such fumigants should not be applied directly to food items because of the dangers inherent in doing so.

It is imperative for NAFDAC to intensify its campaign and sanctions against these dangerous practices. Regular monitoring and severe penalties for offenders must be enforced to deter the use of harmful chemicals. This includes random inspections of markets, food vendors, and storage facilities to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

However, while NAFDAC’s role in safeguarding public health through stringent regulation and enforcement of food safety standards is crucial, the agency cannot tackle this issue alone. Public cooperation and vigilance are imperative. Consumers must be educated about the dangers of chemically preserved food and encouraged to report suspicious practices. They must also be enlightened and empowered to make safe food choices. These include sourcing their food items from reputable markets or stores where the best quality is assured. Buying from roadside markets should be discouraged, as they may not offer the best in terms of safety and quality.

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Government and other stakeholders can also help in promoting safe and sustainable food preservation methods. Traditional techniques such as drying, salting, smoking, and fermenting, combined with modern innovations like refrigeration and natural preservatives, offer viable alternatives. Investing in research to develop and disseminate safe preservation technologies is equally crucial. Training programmes for farmers, traders, and food handlers on the proper use of these technologies will further enhance food safety.

The use of harmful chemicals to preserve food items is a major threat to public health and must be nipped in the bud by all stakeholders in the food supply chain. It is time for government, especially, to take aggressive steps to ensure that Nigerians have access to only food items that are safe and nutritious.

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