Scientists from the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) and allied institutions in Lagos State have decried gaps in the implementation of food and drinks production guidelines in the country, stressing that there is a high risk of a disease outbreak, except regulators like the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), as well as state and local governments health officers, intensify enforcement.
The experts argued that since majority of city dwellers, especially Lagos State residents, cannot do without patronising eateries and canteens at least once daily, it is essential for all food vendors to be medically screened and certified free of infectious diseases, before being allowed to operate across the country.
Speaking with Pharmanews in an exclusive interview, the Director General, NIMR, Professor Babatunde Salako, who acknowledged the loopholes in enforcement of food and drinks regulations in the country, said government and NAFDAC have the obligation to scale up enforcement of relevant laws across the country, in order to protect citizens from disease outbreaks emanating from unregulated food outlets across the country.
Salako, who spoke shortly after the official flag-off of a screening exercise for food handlers and consumers in selected local government areas in Lagos State, said it had been projected that infectious diseases may wreak more havocs on the populace, if regulators do not swing into action immediately to drastically reduce the burden.
“And since it is known that some infectious diseases are food-borne, the need to screen food vendors has become a necessity,” he said.
While acknowledging that it would be a daunting challenge for NAFDAC to track all food vendors across the country, the NIMR boss stated that if the agency is equipped with all the facilities needed for enforcement of food regulations, the task would be much easier.
According to him: “I imagine that the state government and NAFDAC have the duty to enforce these regulations to the letter, because NAFDAC is about food administration. I am not sure how easy that has been for NAFDAC, because they don’t know everyone who sells on the road and they don’t know everyone who hawks foods around and it is difficult to track.
“Since government owes the public the duty of enforcing the law and regulating these practices, it is up to governments at all levels to implement food laws, while mandating food handlers to organise regular screening and awareness creation among themselves at their meetings. That will help them a great deal.”
Narrating his experience with unregulated food and drinks within Lagos State, Dr Toyosi Raheem, principal investigator of the project, noted how he was told about some sharp practices in the food and drink industry, while attempting to purchase some bottles of wine. He averred that the prevalence of this incidence in the state and across the country calls for screening of those operating in the sector.
“There was a time we wanted to buy wine, but we were told that there were many unregulated outlets where those drinks were prepared, and the consequences may not be immediate, as they may have long lasting consequences on consumers. So the oversight supervision of those restaurants and eateries and various places where they sell foods must be scaled up, especially at the local government level.
His words: “It’s a tripartite responsibility. The Federal Government is responsible, by way of funding research institutes, to conduct investigation on such areas for policy formulation, and implementation. NAFDAC, as a government agency, is to regulate food products by ensuring that those producing them are adhering to necessary guidelines.
“Then the local government is also responsible. That is why we have medical officers of health and environmental units. It is their responsibilities to see that quality foods and drinks are produced for public consumption.”
Dr (Mrs) Mobolaji Obadeyi, medical officer, Deloitte & Touche Nigeria, also joined in calling regulators to upscale enforcement of food regulations, notwithstanding the limitations in tracking food producers, some of who operate from unknown places.
Obadeyi, who is also a member of the Governing Board, Lagos State Primary Healthcare Board, admitted the existence of regulations and implementation framework, which, however, suffer from weak compliance and enforcement. She thus charged NAFDAC and others to resume effective regulation of food handlers in the country for the safety and health of all citizens.
She said: “The regulations are there, the framework is also available, but compliance and monitoring are weak. Our food handlers are everywhere; people are making chinchin and cakes inside their homes; so it is difficult to access everybody in the food chain. But it is not impossible, if regulators are mindful of it.”
Professor Salako further disclosed that the research and health advocacy is a constituency project, sponsored by the Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, National Assembly, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, stating that such public health measures are needed at regular intervals in the state and nation as a whole, in order to curb the spread of infectious diseases in the country.
“Morbidity is a general problem in the country, as many patients are finding it difficult to purchase drugs which are not free. Although some states claim to give free healthcare to some categories of citizens, but a wide gap still exists. Therefore, any effort aimed at reducing morbidity and mortality should be embraced and given total support”, he asserted.