The alarm raised by the Mycotoxicology Society of Nigeria on the poor safety rate of food available for consumption in the country is quite scary, but very instructive. Quoting research findings at the 12th annual conference of the society, Hussaini Makun, a professor of biochemistry at the Federal University of Technology, Minna, said that only 19.3 per cent of the food available in the country was safe for both human and animal consumption. It therefore goes without saying that the remaining 80.7 per cent of what is consumed in the country is toxic.
This is, indeed, a very sobering assertion, which should serve as a wake-up call to government agencies that exercise regulatory authority over food production and processing in the country. It is quite disconcerting that a revelation of such profundity is only just coming to light now; which is further evidence of the failure of regulation. But it is one that should be tackled frontally in a country that appreciates the value of public health. How many lives of innocent Nigerians have been lost just by eating what is otherwise considered to be normal food?
Makun, a participant in the research, traced the situation mainly to the heavy presence of mycotoxins in foods found in the markets. But this is by no means the only danger. He said, “We conducted a research and 91 fungi species were discovered in 2,133 samples of grain crops in Nigeria. This shows that only 19.3 per cent of food is safe for our consumption.” A society where only 19.3 per cent of food eaten is safe is one that is living perilously.
Mycotoxins, defined as poisonous chemical compounds produced by certain groups of fungi, have very toxic effects on the body. They are produced by organisms of the fungus kingdom known as mould. Different types of mould are borne aerially and could also grow on crops, producing the mycotoxins which render such crops dangerous for human consumption. Since they could be airborne, it means that they could also be inhaled or contracted through skin lesions.
Fungi levels, and by implication the levels of mycotoxins, are promoted by favourable humidity and the presence of organic matters on which they feed and grow. By the time they invade food crops and such crops are ingested either by animal or man, the result could be deadly. “They are cancerous and suppress human immune system,” Makun explained.
This is confirmed by a Food and Agriculture Organisation Corporate Document Repository, which explains that the effects of food-borne mycotoxins are acute and manifest symptoms of severe illness appearing quickly. “Other mycotoxins occurring in food have longer term chronic or cumulative effects on health, including the induction of cancers and immune deficiency,” the FAO document read. The Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, has had cause to warn that Nigerians were dying in instalments because of the foods they eat.
Usually, the food items mostly affected are maize, groundnuts, millets, sorghum, melon, spices, cocoa seeds and beans, among others, which Nigerians regularly consume with relish in different forms. They are strongly believed to be the source of much of the nutrients that help to nourish the body in a tropical developing country like Nigeria, especially beans, considered a very rich source of plant protein.
Apart from the burden on the health of Nigerian citizens, the country also loses a lot economically. This has become more obvious in the frustrations noticed in the government’s recent effort to refocus the economy and make it agro-driven, instead of the usual reliance on oil. The policy has seen many farmers being encouraged to export foodstuffs. But the foodstuffs are usually rejected as substandard and unfit for human consumption. This comes with a lot of costs to both the individual exporters and the country.
A report in October last year showed that large quantities of yam exported to the United States were rejected over alleged poor quality. Between 2015 and 2017, the European Union, citing poor quality, contamination and the presence of high levels of chemicals used in preservation, banned 67 processed and semi-processed foods from Nigeria. The EU’s Rapid Alert System for Foods, in 2015, said 42 food items imported from Nigeria were not fit for human consumption. Yet these are food items that are consumed freely in Nigeria.
This calls into question the regulatory efficiency of an agency such as the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, which is charged with, among other things, the regulation and control of “the importation, exportation, manufacture, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, bottled water and chemicals.” What are the efforts of NAFDAC in making agricultural products safe for consumption, beyond just labelling processed foods with the manufacture and expiry dates? How often do the officials visit markets to check the safety of food items on display?
Mycotoxins are promoted by droughts, pest, delayed harvests, insufficient drying conditions and poor post-harvest handling. Control of mycotoxins can be achieved by a reduction in the factors that affect their formation. According to the Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 47, No. 8, if moisture level in the food can be reduced and maintained at sufficiently low level, the growth of mycotoxins will be substantially contained. It is also possible to attack mycotoxins through microbial competition, controlled atmosphere and the use of antimycotic agents.
What is really important here is for the Ministry of Agriculture and other relevant agencies to embark on enlightenment programmes on how to contain the spread of mycotoxins. The farmers have to be told what to do. In particular, this is where the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Services and the Inter-ministerial Mycotoxin Technical Committee, a body specifically charged with enlightening farmers on the effects of aflatoxion (a type of mycotoxin) on food and measures that can be taken both for prevention and control of the contamination, can be very useful.