‘Now I make it a law to pour juice into cups before taking it’
Not everyone go through the products they buy. And for those who do, how certain are they about the state of these products? The saddening reports of adulterated and expired food items, especially drinks and sausages produced here in Nigeria, keep coming in at an alarming rate. ISIOMA MADIKE, in this report, looks at the hazards posed to consumers by this situation and other forms of consumer abuse
With an inviting display of drinks, which comes at relatively friendly prices, the Walk-In Fridges at many stores in Lagos, have become magnet for many customers. Shoppers planning parties, events or just want to buy themselves a few drinks can find the Walk-In Fridge drinks a good bargain due to their discounted prices. The cold-room like giant fridges have doors and spacious interior through which shoppers can walk through, and is stocked with mainly bottled and canned beer brands, stacked in crates or packs.
The added incentive for the buyer is that he gets the drinks, inclusive of the bottle and liquid content, at the cut-rate prices, against the practice elsewhere where he or she has to exchange his or her empty bottles before he or she can buy the product. Incidentally, not everyone who goes to the stores has a good story to tell. Just recently, a middle-aged woman, who identified herself simply as Mima, had a soured experience she would not wish her worst enemy. She shared a disturbing image of what she claimed her daughter found inside one of the bottles of malt drink they bought from Shoprite on January 14. According to her, the strange object was discovered by her daughter after the family got back from Shoprite where they had gone shopping.
She said: “My daughter took the malt drinks to the refrigerator after which she decided to take a sip from one of the bottles. She perceived a foul smell as she did that which prompted her to pour the remaining content out into a glass cup. What we saw was, indeed, horrifying. I couldn’t describe whether it’s a mushroom, robber or a piece of glass. My daughter was troubled as a result and was taken to a hospital. I am sharing this so that other children will not fall into this trap. “Unfortunately, when I called the customer service number found on the bottle, the response was quite discouraging; the speaker from the other end tried to blame me for their carelessness.
This is terrible and I believe it can only happen in Nigeria where anything goes with nobody caring a hoot.”
But Mima’s experience is not an isolated one. Another lady, who preferred to be called Motunrayo, came back from work on Monday, January 8, to meet her first child, Tobi, vomiting and complaining of a stomach ache. He was taken to the hospital for treatment and stayed indoors afterwards to properly recover. “I remembered that Tobi had asked for one of the packs of juice we had at home, which was purchased from a major supermarket the Saturday before that Monday. On taking the juice, he started to complain of tummy ache and almost immediately started to vomit without finishing the drink, though the stomach pains subsided almost immediately. My younger sister took it away from him and noticed some black stuff on the straw and proceeded to cut open the pack. It was then she observed that the juice appeared whitish with an off look from what it should normally look like.
“We immediately kept the remaining packets left in the carton away and warned him not to take from it again. But when I got back that Monday and noticed that the pains had started again, I had to cut open the remaining ones left in the carton, and what we found out can only be imagined. We noticed biological matters, which looked like fungus in them. It was black, white and quite disgusting,” she recalled. Yet, Mima and Motunrayo are not alone in this.
Adaeze, who lives at Palm Grove area of Lagos State, also told this reporter that it happened to her sometimes in 2017. “I don’t buy it regularly but when my nieces and nephews show up for holidays, I got a carton. In one of such occasions, I was having some difficulty getting my juice out through the straw, I cut it open and saw green mold. “We had to cut open the remaining packets and two more had mold in them. Now I make it a law to pour juice into cups before taking it. The kids don’t like it so I got fancy cups that make it more fun than drinking from a plain cup,” Adaeze said.
Abimbola’s experience was in the traffic. She was on her way home from work. She flagged down a hawker to buy a sausage roll and a bottle of soft drink. She had already popped the former into her mouth when she remembered that she had not checked the expiry date. To her dismay, the roll had expired four days earlier. In an almost similar situation, Ibrahim, who stays at Lagos Street, off Akilo Road in Ogba, returned from work with a headache. He reached for his first aid box and thankfully there was a pair of tablets left in a sachet of paracetamol. He briskly pressed the tablets out of the sachet, but just before he put them into his mouth, he looked at the expiry date on the sachet… “the drug expired only yesterday.”
Confused, he contemplated going ahead to take the drug. But, he thought of the consequences. Would taking the paracetamol not be a fatal mistake or should he simply continue to suffer from the headache? This was Ibrahim’s dilemma. Many in his shoes would have faced that too.
In a country like Nigeria, where many consumers are illiterate, they are likely to be susceptible to exploitation by dishonest dealers. This may be why health experts often advise consumers against eating expired foods and had always counselled to throw them away when they are past their shelf life. However, one way to know if a particular food is beyond its shelf life is to check the food label for a stamped date, usually with the inscription: “expiry date” or “best before”. But in Nigeria, this inscription means little or nothing as they have often been manipulated. Many dubious retailers have been caught many a times in this act by the authorities concerned, though no concrete steps had ever been taking to put a stop to such.
With this attitude, checking expiry date, at present, may not be a guarantee of safe products any longer. In most cases, the cartons and each individual pack of items would have months ahead as expiry dates when in actual fact such products had long expired. If one is very observant however, the manipulation of the original expiry stamps could be detected.
A seamstress, Hamzat Abiodun, told Saturday Telegraph of the experience she had on Friday, March 27. She had gone to a frozen food store at Ogba to buy food ingredients she wanted to use to prepare soup but ended up buying a bag of Semovita from one of the newly opened shops in the vicinity. “When I opened the bag the next day, I discovered maggots inside the Semovita. I was surprised because before I bought it, I checked to assure myself of the genuiness of what I was buying.
That was why it was so surprising what l later found in the bag of Semovita; I was really shocked and could not believe what I was seeing. I went back to the shop but met the sales girl who said that her aunt had gone out. I waited for her because I needed to lay a formal complaint.
“By the time she returned she could not fathom the reason for the state of the Semovita and pleaded, saying she was sorry. Yet, she added annoyingly that there was nothing she could do. Though I understood her predicament, but the way she spoke in a dismissive manner got me angry, and I started lashing out at her. I threatened to let hell loose if she does nothing to compensate me. I left a while after but promised myself not to buy anything from her shop again,” Abiodun added.
Prince Ifeanyi works in a cosmetic company somewhere in Ikeja, Lagos. He recalled how their managers used to give them certain chemical with which they use in cleaning plastics. But the cleaning was much more than we thought. “We were often instructed to use it to also clean batch numbers, the production and the expiration dates. The plastics then will be taken to the machine where new numbers will be printed on them.
“At first, I thought it was a normal thing to do. But when I came to really understand the fact that we were altering what could be damaging to other people’s life, I just collected the pay for that month and stopped working there. I felt it was wrong to change such expiry dates. From that moment I didn’t feel comfortable working there anymore. I had to opt out because my conscience had started to prick me,” said Ifeanyi. Blessing Onyedika, an indigene of Anambra State, has her story as well.
“The day was Thursday, January 30, at Ojota, Lagos. An opened bottle of diet mineral drink lay before my desk. I have always been a fan of that brand’s products because of their catchy advertisements and mantra. But there was something wrong with this beverage on this particular daya swig from the bottle was enough to arrive at a conclusion. The ‘best before date’ on the bottle’s cap answered my doubts. The drink or rather the ‘poison’ before me had long expired. “I made a dash to the shop where the drink was bought.
A rather naïve sales attendant apologetically collected it from me. Her offer to replace the drink only unearthed more rot. Stacked in a corner of the room were cartons of expired stock. In alarm, she opened the refrigerator and more expired bottles smiled at us.
Off course all the bottles bore the date 01/07/2018. There is also this rumour about a major retailing chain in Nigeria selling expired products. Although the rumour has not been properly verified by the authorities concerned, many believe that the management and staff of the superstore have been silently killing Nigerians by tactfully reducing prices of adulterated products. Not long ago, a family reportedly lost one of their sons, who died from food poisoning from eating a contaminated cheese bought from the retail giant. Many have had similar testimonies too. However, a list of different terms and what they mean have been provided by food health experts to further educate consumers on the appropriate thing to do.
One of such terms is “Sell by” date. The labelling “sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale and advises customers to buy the products before this date. This is basically a guide for the retailer, so that the store knows when to remove the item from its shelf.
This though, is not mandatory because the issue is with the quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. According to experts, “sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after. Another is “Use by” date: After this date foods may be unsafe to eat even if they look fine, because the nutrients in them may become unstable or a build-up of bacteria may occur.
This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date is determined by the manufacturer of the product. Most visible “use by” foods include milk, meat, and vegetables. And then, the common one, “Best before” date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavour or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
The “Best before” date simply indicates that the product may lose some of its quality after this date. If one stores these foods properly, one can still expect them to retain their colour, taste, texture and flavour. “Best before” foods include canned foods, cereals, biscuits, sauces, chocolate, sugar, flour and frozen foods. However, it is advised not to throw foods away just because they are past their “Best before” dates. This only means that such foods are no longer at their peak of freshness. There is also “Guaranteed fresh” date.
Though not too common in this part of the world, it usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness. However, to make sure food lasts until its date mark, it is important to follow storage instructions, such as “keep refrigerated” and “store in a cool, dry place”. Sometimes, heating the food can kill bacteria, according to food experts.
Yet, there are the categories of contaminated products that are purely burn out of share negligence of the workers, who are supposed to supervise the purity of such items in the line of production. This happens especially in bottling companies in which the workers on production line are supposed to check at every point to make sure no dirt gets in into the bottle before corking it up. But often times, this simple process is neglected either genuinely or by share wickedness on the part of some dubious employees. A 54-year-old shop-owner in Idumota, Lagos, who prefers to remain anonymous, told this reporter he would not stop selling food past its sell-by date if there are demands for them. “If the food is well packed, even if it has expired, people can consume it without being worried.
Of course, what I sell is cheaper and people like that. When they buy I make them aware that I don’t take any responsibility for the quality or any effects caused,” she said.
Another beverage vendor at Mushin market, who also does not want to be named, admitted he usually changed expiry dates. “I make up a new expiry date. People say that most of the products can be consumed after the expiry date for at least one year; so I don’t see why I should throw away such items. What I do is to change the stamp to a later date and people can buy them. “I have never got into trouble with the government because I perfect what I do. People are dying because of violence and I’m not the one killing them. So, if they have any health problems as a result of what I am doing, they have a doctor to take care of them,” he jokingly said.
But health officials are concerned by the increasing number of fake foods and medicines on sale in the country. “Doctors have raised serious concerns about the increasing number of people who get foodpoisoning as a result of consuming such products,” said a woman who identified herself simply as Kafayat, a senior official in the Lagos State Ministry of Health. Yet, expired products are not just peculiar to shelves of some stores or supermarkets in Nigeria alone. They can be found all over the world. For example, In November 2014, some shoppers who picked a number of items in a few stores in Houston, Texas, USA, found out when they got back home that some of the items had expired since April 2012.
This kind of experience abound in other countries as well Reacting to the issue of adulterated dates, the Public Relations officer of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Obiazikwor Christiana, said that NAFDAC only deals with regulated products. These, according to her, include items such as drugs, cosmetics and medical devices. “For products we have two dates on them; the manufacturing date and the expiry dates; although there are also batch numbers on them. Expiry date means the date that the producer has advised users to discontinue using such products. The product is no longer safe for use after that day. And any consequence from the usage of that product the producer is no longer liable for it.
And that is why we advise people to read product labels very well so as to make sure that products they buy are not expired. “Any product that has manufacturing date without expiry date can never be approved by NAFDAC. So, it is even a way of identifying a good product. No product can last forever.
Garri that we use in our houses cannot last be forever. Even yam, there is an extent you keep yam in the barn no matter how you want to preserve it. With time it will start shrinking and turn to something that you can no longer eat. These are natural things not to talk of things that you use preservatives that have chemical components,” she said. In like manner, the General Manager, Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency, Mrs Oluwakemi Olugbode, is irked by what she called the brazen attitude of businessmen, who capitalise on Nigerians’ low knowledge about their rights on consumables to cheat. She said: “We consumers must take our destinies in our hands and go the extra mile to check the life span of what we consume. You are kings and you have the right to determine who gets your money.
If you see products that are near expiration just don’t buy. And when you don’t buy, they stay on the shelf and over time, those who put them on the shelf would be forced to remove them. Stop making billionaires out of unscrupulous and dubious businessmen, who go to other countries to bring products that are not safe for consumption at unbelievable cheap prices into Nigeria.” Olugbode said on assumption of duty, she discovered through a consumer survey conducted, that the level of consumers’ awareness of their rights and responsibilities was abysmally low. She said that over time, this lack of awareness has been exploited by some businesses to brazenly engage in all sorts of sharp practices that undermine the safety, comfort and economic interest of the consumers.
She also frowned at the manner some products were being stored in markets, warning that improper storage, like leaving packaged or bottled water exposed to the sun, has been undermining the quality of such products.
“It is common knowledge that even when they were not expired, the quality of most products gets compromised when stored under harsh weather conditions. It is worrisome that most super stores across the country stock their bottled water and beverages under direct sunlight in front of their shops for weeks on end. The practice of storing such items under the sun is unacceptable as it negates the storage conditions stipulated by the manufacturers and thereby exposing consumers to injury,” she added.
The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) has also warned Nigerians to be careful of the products they buy and not to buy any merchandise without expiry date defective. Bottled Water (Labelling) Regulations, under the NAFDAC Act, made similar provisions in the cases of prepackaged foods and bottled water respectively. Surprisingly, despite the indifference on the part of many Nigerians to report and or enforce product liability laws, particularly the violations of the legal requirement of expiry date labels in consumer products, Nigerian laws did not treat it with kid gloves. Paragraph 21 of the Prepackaged Food (Labelling) Regulations and Paragraph 16 of the Bottled Water (Labelling) Regulations, NAFDAC Act prescribes permanent or temporary prohibition from the importation, exportation, manufacture, distribution, sale of and use of the consumer items in each case, or in addition, a fine of N50,000 as penalty for contravention thereto.
It is also an offence under Section 9 of the Consumer Protection Council Act, for a manufacturer or distributor of a product to fail, on becoming aware after such a product has been placed on the market of any unforeseen hazard arising from the use of such product; and to notify the general public immediately of such risk or danger and cause to be withdrawn from the market such product.
Not too long ago, NAFDAC revealed that importers of substandard products had devised a new strategy of repackaging expired products and making them look like valid products. An example is the case of some dairy products imported into Nigeria from Holland. It was discovered that the milk had expired but was repackaged and another valid date put on the packs.