Forced ripening of fruits meant for human consumption, using dangerous chemical substances, is fast becoming a culture in this part of the world, despite its hazardous implications for health. Experts and institutions have always warned against the practice, with the most recent of such warnings coming from the National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration and Control. The regulatory agency, in a statement by its Director-General, Moji Adeyeye, took a particular interest in the ingestion of fruits in which calcium carbide has been used to quicken the ripening process.
According to Adeyeye, a professor of Pharmaceutics, Manufacturing Science and Drug Product Evaluation, carbide contains impurities such as arsenic, lead particle and phosphorous. “Consumption of fruits containing these impurities may cause cancer, heart, kidney and liver failure,” she explained. Irritation of the mouth, nose, eye and skin, permanent skin damage, vomiting, difficulty in swallowing, sore throat, shortness of breath and numbness are some of the other health hazards associated with coming in contact with carbide or ingesting any food item ripened using the chemical.
With the growing interest in meals of fresh fruits and vegetables, it is not surprising that diseases such as cancer and internal organ failure are becoming commonplace in Nigeria. Among many prominent Nigerians that have fallen victim to cancer, for instance, was the former DG of NAFDAC, Dora Akunyili. According to figures made available by the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria, there were over 2 million cases of cancer in the country in 2016, with 100,000 new cases occurring every year. Dapo Campbell, a professor of oncology, said that about 10,000 Nigerians died of cancer yearly, but reports credited to the World Health Organisation put the latest figures at 80,000 cancer deaths per annum.
This is why efforts should not be spared towards ensuring that all foods and drinks taken in the country are properly monitored just as it is done in advanced countries. In Europe, for instance, any food item imported has to meet set standards before the citizens can be allowed to eat it. Little wonder that about 67 food items exported by Nigeria to the European Union countries were banned between 2015 and 2016 for failure to comply with their standards. Conversely, in Nigeria, people eat anything that comes their way, mainly out of ignorance, arising from low levels of awareness.
Ripening is a natural process that takes place in fruits. This process, according to scientists, is aided by ethylene, a hormone released naturally by fruits. It is the process that softens fruits and makes them ready for ingestion. Typically, fruits change colour, texture, taste and, in some cases, emit pleasant aroma when they are ripe. Ripening makes fruits nutritious; and, for the traders, this is a delicate period when as much of the fruits as possible have to be sold or risk them rotting away.
However, not many are ready to wait for the natural ripening process, which is why fruits such as bananas, mangoes and pineapples are sometimes forced to ripen, using artificial or chemical agents such as calcium carbide and ethephon. The motivation is the desire for high turnovers and profits. But due to its hazardous nature, calcium carbide is banned in many countries. In India, for instance, where artificial ripening of fruits is rampant, the chemical has been banned under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006. The offence is likened to food poisoning and anyone caught in the act risks spending up to 10 years in jail.
In Nigeria, very little seems to be happening by way of monitoring to spare people a sure death by instalments. While it is important to come up with periodic warnings, as NAFDAC usually does, about an existing danger in consuming some poisonous food, helping to raise awareness amongst members of the public, health and regulatory authorities, however, have a greater responsibility to go beyond just raising the alarm to enforcing compliance with extant laws concerning the quality and standards of ingestible items in the country. Experience has shown that people who benefit from unlawful acts will not readily give it up, unless forced to do so. In this case, the urge for profits is so irresistible that it invariably trumps concerns for human health.
By now, NAFDAC ought to have developed the capacity to monitor fruit sellers, especially those who bulk-buy with intent to resell. Forced ripening of fruits is common in the cities where fruits are hardly planted but are in high demand. NAFDAC should ensure that the habit is discontinued, especially by those who may not even know that what they are doing constitutes a health hazard. It may not be possible to arrest everybody involved but when a few are picked up and prosecuted, it will serve as a deterrent to others.
It is important to help members of the public to identify fruits that have been forced to ripen. Such fruits, it is said, are more attractive and are identified by their uniformity in colour. Fruits ripened by calcium are soft and have very short storage lifespan. They are less tasty compared to those that ripen naturally.
In a place like Dubai, for example, which imports large quantities of fruits, there is a newly-acquired device for the testing of fruits and vegetables to detect the level of insecticides and chemicals to ensure their fitness for human consumption. According to the Dubai Central Lab, the device has the capacity to test 600 samples of fruits a day. “Our current system takes up to 260 kinds. The new device, operated by the latest technology, will offer different kinds of inspection,” said a report quoting Ahmed Amin, the Director of DCL. This is one of the areas that NADFAC should be exploring.