Activities in and around Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) and CocaCola have been at fever pitch since the now very controversial court judgment which held that two of its brands, Fanta and Sprite could be injurious to health, was delivered mid-March 2017.
The judgment was a very hurtful one, coming at a time the brand is also facing a few struggles in the value segment from entrants like Big Cola and Biggie Cola. But like the very first analyses we did on this raging issue, the thesis point in this story is not about what NBC and CocaCola is doing to convince the public that its brands are safe. On the contrary, I wish to point out the harm the privileged class in Nigeria just might have been doing to their health and the health of their children and loved ones by given preference to the consumption of certain foreign groceries as against those produced in Nigeria.
The country is a sharply divided one, split unevenly between the haves (including the legions of pretenders to the throne) and the have-nots and this is most obvious in the way we shop.
It is a beer-palour joke that there are families in Nigeria that frequently jump into the plane just so they could buy toothpaste from a Wal-Mart in the United States. Others are said to play six hours just to get a change of undies at Macy’s in the United Kingdom while a great many shop for their baby food somewhere in Dubai.
Fanta and Sprite may still be suffering serious PR diarrhea following the court judgment but if there is a great thing the whole issue had done for the Nigerian market, it is to challenge the obviously morbid preference by many Nigerians for foreign goods at just about every level and category.
Even the poor ones are being strained by economy from purchasing some foreign goods. Given the enabling economic power, many of us would join this enlightened but grossly ignorant class.
Many, if not all of them did not know that those toothpastes and soft drinks, including fruit juices that they bring in from abroad as a means of differentiating themselves from the rest just might contain chemical substances at levels not good for their health, especially given the tropical climate of Nigeria.
We have already heard the side of the Nigerian Bottling Company and CocaCola that have said the level of benzoic acid (the contentious chemical preservative) in the products in Nigeria are at the acceptable level of 250mg per litre of soft drinks.
But what we have not heard is that those who would rather buy packaged drinks from some foreign countries may just be endangering their lives.
When NBC published their advertorial claiming their products, Fanta and Sprite are safe for consumption and contain benzoic acid at acceptable, safe levels, we hit the internet just to find out a bit more about benzene and a research paper written by James K. Kusi, Samuel O. Acquaah, of the Department of Chemistry, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana and published by the International Organisation of Scientific Research has this to say:
“The use of benzoic acid as an antimicrobial agent has been observed to have adverse effects such as metabolic acidosis, convulsion, hyperactive and hyperpnoea in experimental animals and humans given very high doses of benzoic acid. The development of allergic reactions to benzoates in humans, such as urticaria, non-immunological contact urticaria and asthma, has also been reported in some studies.
“Benzene which is carcinogenic can be formed at very low level (ppb level) in soft and fruit drinks containing both benzoates and ascorbic acid. Exposure to heat and light further stimulate the reaction.”
The highlighted portion above is what is very critical to this article. In the research document copiously quoted above, Ghana was said to have set their benzoate limit in their soft drinks to 250mg/L, same as Nigeria, and that is given the climatic condition of both countries. The United Kingdom and other EU countries, mindful of their temperate climate have set theirs at 150mg/L.
I do not even wish to talk about countries like the United States with as high as 1000mg/L (see table below) but what is clear here is that those who in ostentatious ignorance would rather shop their soft drinks in UK markets than Nigeria are at greater risk.
The heat here is quite high and getting even higher. Although it has been said that it is only heat levels as high as 60 degrees centigrade that can make benzoic acid dangerous, it becomes clear that at 150mg/L, soft drinks shipped from the EU markets pose greater risk to health since it may very likely take temperature levels lower than 60 degrees to turn their benzene contents to carcinogens.
It becomes therefore very imperative for regulators like the National Agency for Foods Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the Standards organization of Nigeria (SON) to begin, for a change, to do a lot more than public relations sloganeering buy ensuring that products, especially consumables, conform strictly to standards.
At certain fora, I have heard people talking about standards and I often wondered what the Nigerian standard is for any product. Most importers of goods and services and even local manufacturers treat their ISO certifications as mere license to operate and not a commitment to abide by set rules and parameters.
On the other hand, even the regulatory NAFDAC and SON treat their product registrations and SONCAP as mere revenue receipts and once they are paid, they move on to the next violator whose products form the bulk of the apparently selective seizures they announce to the press.
I say this because in sane nations, companies that manufacture goods for local consumption and export know how to properly segment and batch their products to ensure the one for local use comply to existing local standards while those prepared for export comply to the standards of the country of destination.
It is for this reason that, while not exculpating Nigerian Bottling Company of blame in the current crises (I am not in a position to anyway), I still hold that regulatory bodies who themselves wok at the ports from where those Fanta and Sprite packs left Nigeria for the UK have most of the blame.
Had they stopped the Fijabis from exporting products not in compliance with UK and EU standards as is their duty and responsibility, this whole drama never would have happened.
But then, how else would we have been made aware that those products we consume just so we show other Nigerians the gap between them and us could be a lot more dangerous to our health than the ones next door we have been ignoring?
Please share your thoughts/opinions in the comment section below…
(Ikem Okuhu – BrandishNigeria)