NAFDAC needs urgent makeover

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The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control corporate office, Abuja

The news hit like a bolt. Two of Nigeria’s popular carbonated soft drinks could not pass stringent standards test set in the United Kingdom. A Lagos High Court thereafter ordered the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control to compel the manufacturers of Fanta Orange and the Sprite fizzy drinks to carry warnings that they should not be taken together with Vitamin C. Beyond the hoopla, the case draws attention to the deluge of unwholesome food and drugs in the market and the urgency to rejuvenate NAFDAC.

The spotlight came via a court case where a local firm sued the Nigerian Bottling Company, franchisee of Coca-Cola products in Nigeria. His grouse that the rejection of the Sprite and Fanta consignment by the UK health authorities on the grounds that they contained high levels of “sunset yellow and benzoic acid” and thus unacceptable in the European Union countries was upheld by the court. According to the complainant, on the arrival of his Fanta and Sprite products in the UK in 2007 where his firm planned to retail them, health authorities said the benzoic acid levels of 200 mg/kg in them exceeded the 150 mg/kg permissible level for the UK. When taken together with Vitamin C, which Nigerians swallow prodigiously with or without medical prescription, they become poisonous, some allege. Benzoic acid, widely used as preservative in food and soft drinks, is safe when used in appropriate quantities but can be harmful in excessive amounts or when mixed with certain other chemicals.

As expected, the NBC and its allies are up in arms, and vowed to appeal, while NAFDAC says that its approved level in Nigeria is 250 mg/kg. Though the Health Minister, Isaac Adewole, has set up a panel of experts to investigate, the ministry has said the products are indeed safe for consumption and, like the NBC, cited the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Codex that set a limit of 600 mg/kg of benzoic and ascorbic acid in drinks and food.

There is a danger however of missing the point amid the damage-control efforts. Higher courts may agree or disagree with the judgement and the system could well endorse the NBC. Yet, Nigeria is awash with fake drugs, unwholesome food and unregulated markets. NAFDAC, despite its announcements of seizures, is weakened and urgently requires rejuvenation to recapture the glorious days when the late Dora Akunyili was its director-general. Adewole would do well to focus more on strengthening and making NAFDAC a formidable regulator once more. Pharmaceuticals manufacturers and domestic food producers are feeling the pinch of the influx of substandard competitors from abroad. Some 70 to 80 per cent of drugs consumed in Nigeria are foreign imports, according to the World Health Organisation. The Association of Industrial Pharmacists insists that fake and substandard medicines are invariably foreign. 

Unwholesome beans, like fruits treated with dangerous chemicals and pesticides, are rife. One gang was recently smashed in Lagos that treats beans with Sniper, a pesticide. Unsafe food and drugs lead to deaths, injuries and illnesses; harm the economy by discouraging legitimate local production and employment and create drug-resistance.  The WHO says they “cause morbidity, mortality and significant burdens to the economy.” A don, Alfred Ihenkuronye, claimed that 200,000 persons died each year in Nigeria through food poisoning.

Combating this scourge needs a stronger, revitalised NAFDAC, which has lost its lethal effectiveness despite much posturing in the mass media. Adewole needs to quickly present an incorruptible, knowledgeable and vibrant candidate to President Muhammadu Buhari for immediate appointment as DG of NAFDAC. He needs to probe allegations of corruption, indolence and collusion among its staff and restructure the agency for efficiency.

Buhari and Adewole should give the new NAFDAC DG all the necessary backing and funding; these helped greatly in Akunyili’s success. Taking on powerful interests requires courage and expertise. Experts say that prevalence of fake drugs and unwholesome food is higher in developing countries with weak regulations, poor enforcement and unregulated markets. Food and drug vendors ousted from the streets and buses some years ago are back. Over 30 per cent of the drugs sold in the famous Onitsha drug markets were found to be fake. We have to re-create the virile NAFDAC that, between 2001 and 2004, destroyed counterfeit and substandard products worth N7.2 billion and secured 40 convictions in the courts. In the three months of July to October 2007, it seized and destroyed N3 billion worth of fake drugs in Onitsha, Lagos and Kano. In the old days, one word from NAFDAC would have calmed apprehension.

There should be a concerted government action to contain fakers. Only drugs pre-approved by NAFDAC should be allowed into the country. Our laws may not permit execution as in China, which arrested 1,900 persons in a 2012 crackdown and executed a few, but offenders should be diligently prosecuted. Civil society groups should also help. In the US, well-funded NGOs monitor and keep a watchful eye on food and drugs and constitute a powerful lobby.

The Fanta and Sprite episode provides an opportunity to raise the bar, as the judge remarked; if a standard is not good enough for Europe, why should it be for Nigeria?  The ministry should resolve the issue quickly to reassure Nigerians of their safety.

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