A Lagos court the other day ordered the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to compel the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) Plc, to carry a mandatory warning on its Fanta and Sprite brands, stating that the contents should not be taken with Vitamin C in order to avoid poisoning. Also, the court berated NAFDAC for poor regulation of the brands and awarded a N2 million cost, declaring that the agency failed Nigerians by certifying Fanta and Sprite fit for human consumption even when they were later tested and declared unfit for human consumption in the United Kingdom (UK).
The suit was filed by a company that tried to export Fanta and Sprite bottled in Nigeria to the UK. British authorities seized and destroyed the products for being poisonous by containing excess levels of benzoic acid and sunset additives. Benzoic acid, which serves as a preservative, if used excessively, can cause cancer and has also been linked to asthma problems and increased levels of hyperactivity in children. It can cause allergies, hyperactivity, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting in some individuals. Anyway, the questions at this juncture are: should the contents of Fanta and Sprite not be the same worldwide? What scientific explanations does NBC have for variations reported in the contents of the products in Nigeria? Is the issue of what is good for the temperate and tropical regions not too opaque and deserves better explanation?
NAFDAC has filed an appeal and a motion to stay execution of the judgment on Sprite and Fanta, while NBC has also said that the judgment was inaccurate as its products are safe for consumption in Nigeria and appealed the court judgment. This case has, however, brought to the fore the issues of consumers right to information and safety in Nigeria! One thing is obvious –the case has been in the court for about a decade in the slow wheel of justice. Within the period, there was no attempt by the relevant government agencies to recall the batch of the drinks and join the media to sensitise the public on the use of soft drinks and Vitamin C with a view to ensuring the safety of consumers.
Anyway, despite the fact that NBC has argued that its Nigerian brands are safe for consumption, it is better to be cautious. Hence, the need for further investigations against the backdrop of the safety issue raised by the judgment, especially with regard to the effects of excessive level of benzoic acid and sunset additives on human health. Their interactivity with Vitamin C should also be srutinised. The investigation of these ingredients and their levels in the soft drinks product category should be extended to all brands in the country, because machines cannot easily pick carcinogenic disease and daily many Nigerians are dying without knowing the causes.
Furthermore, the various health conditions associated with the ingredients and their prevalence should be studied by experts to establish trends. It is only through such researches that the health concerns of taking soft drinks can be scientifically established while speculations and mistrust concerning the health hazards will be addressed. Furthermore, based on the findings of the researches, obligations of marketers to consumers, especially on health warnings will be established, and if possible contents of soft drinks recalibrated.
As a people, Nigerians should all be committed to ensuring that destruction and loss of lives especially through food intake are reduced to the lowest ebb if not totally prevented. As such, relevant ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government such as NAFDAC, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Consumer Protection Council (CPC) and the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH), should collaborate in a well-coordinated manner to conduct a broad and detailed examination of all food brands; while the consumer rights groups should hire independent investigators to do the same and make the findings public. This exercise in ensuring the safety of food and drinks should not be for only Fanta and Sprite but various others. Apart from doing this now, the duty bearers should carry out periodic monitoring and review for quality control and assurance; and to reassure consumers of the safety of products in the market. It should be done also to ensure that people get value for their money. Batch examination of food and drinks using stringent measures should be compulsory. If these are done,sub- standard goods will be stamped out of the markets and products consumed will be health compliant. Consumption is life and death. This is a task that must be done if Nigerians are truly committed to rebuilding their country. Where attention to details is missing, the nation will perish.