Eat And Die!

There is need to en­sure that the food we put on the ta­ble is good enough for con­sump­tion

THISDAY - - EDITORIAL -

The re­cent claim by a Pro­fes­sor of Food Science and Tech­nol­ogy, Al­fred Ihenkuronye, that no fewer than 200,000 per­sons die of food poi­son­ing in Nige­ria an­nu­ally may be ex­ag­ger­ated. But sta­tis­tics of death aris­ing from the din­ner ta­ble is none­the­less alarm­ing. A few weeks ago, three stu­dents of Mega Gov­ern­ment Girls Com­pre­hen­sive Sec­ondary School in Kebbi State died af­ter eat­ing a spe­cial del­i­cacy pre­pared by one of the par­ents. At about the same pe­riod, four mem­bers of a fam­ily in Ilorin, Kwara State died af­ter the con­sump­tion of `amala’ (yam flour) meal, sus­pected to be con­tam­i­nated.

In­creas­ingly, many Nige­ri­ans are los­ing their lives, iron­i­cally, from what ought to sus­tain and in­deed, keep them alive. Yet, if there is any les­son to take away from the re­cent panic over beans, a pop­u­lar sta­ple food, it is the cry­ing need to en­sure that the food we put on the ta­ble or the ones we ex­port meet with min­i­mum stan­dards. This is against the back­ground that over the years, hun­dreds of fam­i­lies had per­ished af­ter the con­sump­tion of con­tam­i­nated food items ei­ther at home or at par­ties. Since the causes of many of these deaths were never ac­cu­rately de­ter­mined, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that some of them could have been caused by food poi­son­ing.

What is par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing is that across the coun­try, there are grow­ing in­ci­dents of deaths re­sult­ing from eat­ing some cas­sava-based meals. Cas­sava-based dishes are widely con­sumed in Nige­ria, and in­deed in many places in Africa, as in South Amer­ica, where it is a ma­jor source of car­bo­hy­drates. They are by far the com­mon­est meals, with pop­u­lar ap­peal to the poor. But Cas­sava has one ma­jor draw­back: the roots and leaves of poorly pro­cessed cas­sava plants con­tain a sub­stance named Li­na­marin which when eaten is con­verted to cyanide, a poi­sonous gas which could be fa­tal when in­haled or in­gested.

The poor prepa­ra­tion of cas­sava meals, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, can leave enough of this poi­sonous sub­stance to cause acute in­tox­i­ca­tion, goi­ter and in some cases death. The pro­cess­ing of cas­sava of­ten em­ployed by the tra­di­tional meth­ods and ru­ral women (by crush­ing, soak­ing in wa­ter to fer­ment and bak­ing) is said to be good enough to ef­fec­tively con­tain the toxic con­tent found in cas­sava, whether of the sweet or bit­ter va­ri­ety. But these days, many of the pro­duc­ers adopt short-cut pro­cess­ing tech­niques, which turn out to en­dan­ger many lives. In some cases, par­tic­u­larly those with high cyanide level, mere ex­po­sure to the volatile sub­stances while be­ing pro­cessed can cause some health dis­or­ders. The most en­dan­gered are peo­ple al­ready mal­nour­ished as they lack the proper mix of amino-acids which are vi­tal in­gre­di­ents in detox­i­fy­ing the poi­son.

In re­cent times, there have been calls on the need to set stan­dards for tol­er­a­ble lev­els of cyanide in cas­savare­lated foods. But there are also counter-ar­gu­ments that such a mea­sure is need­less be­cause it will be dif­fi­cult to en­force un­der our cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment. Cas­sava has been a sta­ple food in Nige­ria for a long time. To that ex­tent, ex­perts are agreed that the present mode of pro­cess­ing cas­sava or any of its va­ri­eties - gari, amala, fufu, tapi­oca - etc., are good enough to re­duce the harm­ful cyanide con­tent to be­low toxic level. What the au­thor­i­ties can do, per­haps, is a cam­paign to sen­si­tise the pro­duc­ers to take more time in pro­cess­ing their cas­sava meals.

Given the alarm­ing rate at which peo­ple, in­clud­ing some­times a whole fam­ily, eat cer­tain food and then die in our coun­try, there is an ur­gent need for pub­lic en­light­en­ment on the dan­ger as­so­ci­ated with some of the food items we con­sume.

GIVEN THE ALARM­ING RATE AT WHICH PEO­PLE EAT CER­TAIN FOOD AND THEN DIE IN OUR COUN­TRY, THERE IS AN UR­GENT NEED FOR PUB­LIC EN­LIGHT­EN­MENT ON THE DAN­GER AS­SO­CI­ATED WITH SOME OF THE FOOD ITEMS WE CON­SUME

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