The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) raids markets in the 36 states and Abuja to rid the country of non-fortified foods, writes Jones Obong
In September 2015, Global Summit on Food Fortification was held in Arusha, Tanzania following the realisation that food systems and eating habits are changing rapidly due to urbanisation, changing climate, land and water use and a younger population.
The event was aimed at revitalising national awareness, interest, and investment in food fortification as well as create a shared vision for improving and expanding fortification efforts.
Experts say scaling up the availability and consumption of fortified foods in Nigeria would contribute to the achievement of a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), reduce the incidence of spina bifida in unborn children, anaemia among women of reproductive age and enhance cognitive development within the first 1000 days of life.
They, however, maintain that while food fortification alone cannot end malnutrition in any country, it is critical to micronutrient deficiency prevention and control strategies.
Leaving nothing to chance, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) recently commenced an aggressive nationwide evacuation of unfortified food products in the country.
The exercise was conducted simultaneously in the 36 states of the federation and Abuja.
SON’s enforcement team stormed Alaba Rago markets in Iba local council development area of Lagos State, where it seized loads of unfortified bagged granulated sugar from the various markets.
In the northwest region, the agency raided some markets and seized 683 bags of suspected imported unfortified sugar valued at N9.2 million.
The director general of SON, Mr. Osita Aboloma, said the exercise was in line with both the present administration’s and international organisation’s food fortification programme aimed at ensuring that Nigerian children and women have access to basic nutrients and vitamins for health and development.
“We have decided to go all out to ensure that the standards for flour, pasta, sugar and salt (food fortified products) meet the minimum requirement of the standards. After being consumed by Nigerians, we must get the quality nutrients we deserve.
“Children and women suffer malnutrition when these food items are not certified. Lack of fortification of food also leads to stunted growth and child mortality and this is why these fortified foods have been supported by the international agencies as partners to ensure that Nigerian children and women grow like other children and women in other parts of the world.
“These food vehicles have been carefully selected because they are food items consumed by every Nigerian. These products are smuggled into the Nigerian markets, and this is why our Inspectorate and Compliance department is all out to ensure that wherever these products are being smuggled into in the country, we do the needful.
“We are conducting massive evacuation so that they do not find their way into the Nigerian market. We are targeting all the entry points. We have our comb on all major markets to ensure that Nigerians are protected from these unfortified foods,” he said.
Aboloma further said that failing to address malnutrition would continue to negatively impact, not only on the health and wellbeing of Nigerians, but also on the country’s economic growth and prosperity.
He said SON and other government representatives had declared their commitment to improving the regulatory environment around food fortification, pledged to review potential impediments to greater fortification and increase enforcement and incentive mechanisms.
The director general also said SON was working with the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Consumer Protection Council (CPC) and international partners to ensure that the fortification programme of the federal government is a success.
“We have confirmed that there are unfortified food items in the market and our mandate is to remove them from circulation because we have agreed that those products should not be in our market because it is a great concern to us as a standards body.
“If allowed to permeate, it means the essence of the fortification is defeated. It is a careful programme of the federal government to ensure that Nigerians get value for their money. Nigerian children should develop like children in other parts of the globe. They should grow normally without any defect,” he said.
Aboloma advised Nigerians to always look out for the quality symbols before purchasing food items for consumption, saying that the fight against substandard goods in the country is a collective effort.
Fortified foods are those that have nutrients added to them that do not naturally occur in the food. These foods are meant to improve nutrition and add health benefits.
For instance, wheat flour is fortified with vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and iron. Maize meal, margarine, cooking oil and sugar are fortified with vitamin A. Margarine is also fortified with vitamin D. Salt is fortified with iodine. Milk is often fortified with vitamin D, and calcium may be added to fruit juices.
Worldwide, more than 2 billion people have micronutrient deficiencies because they are not getting enough essential vitamins and minerals each day.
Globally, children are particularly vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies. Without added vitamins and minerals, many children and teens do not meet daily nutrient requirements.
The deputy director, nutrition division in the ministry of health, Dr. Chris Isokpunwu, said preventable deficiencies of critical vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, D, iron, iodine, folic acid and zinc contributed globally to up to three million child deaths annually.
Isokpunwu said Nigeria had taken stock of its food fortification programme and assessed its successes and challenges and determined actions that would boost compliance aimed at achieving public health goals – tackling “hidden hunger” or micronutrient deficiencies – which cause 10 per cent of global diseases, inhibit human development and perpetuate poverty and deprivation.
“The 2015 National Nutrition and Health Survey indicates that that 19.4 per cent of children under the age of five in Nigeria are underweight, 32.9 per cent are stunted and 7.2 per cent are wasted. Micronutrient malnutrition has far-reaching effects on individuals and impedes the economic development of nations. The World Bank has calculated the return on investment in nutrition interventions as N25 to every naira (N25:N1) with food fortification being one of the most cost effective interventions for tackling micronutrient deficiencies globally,” he said.
However, he said Nigeria had come a long way in the past decade.
“The enabling environment has been built and critical building blocks established. For example, our flour fortification standards are in line with WHO standards, the national Universal Salt Iodization programme has incorporated a robust information management system to track compliance, discussions on expanding food vehicles for fortification should begin with rice, garri, tomato paste, noodles etc taking centre stage as possible vehicles.
“There is much more to be done. Nigeria once attained about 97 per cent coverage of adequately iodized salt as a result of strong commitment and joint effort between industry, government and development partners. We need to reinvigorate that programme. Through effective fortification with iron of grains we can expect to achieve a 2.4 per cent reduction per annum in anaemia. Fortification of wheat flour with folic acid in 18 countries in Africa and Asia could prevent over 50,000 debilitating neural tube defects annually. We cannot lose these opportunities and must ensure that the government, private sector, development partners, civil society and academia are working in unison for these gains,” he stressed.
While fortified and enriched foods can certainly add to a healthy diet, experts say they are not enough by themselves.
They maintain that people still need to eat a well-rounded, varied diet that is loaded with vegetables and other whole foods stressing that one cannot rely on fortification or enrichment to get all of the nutrients one needs.