But then, this is even beyond Fanta and Sprite. The more pertinent question brought to the fore by this are – Are there more things we need to be worried about? Can we be sure there is someone out there really looking out for the safety and best interest of Nigerians? To lose faith in an agency such as NAFDAC with charge over Food and Drugs is no good for the system.
So, here we are, the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) Plc finally responds to the decision by the Court that the National Agency For Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) orders it (NBC) to put a written warning on Fanta and Sprite bottles stating that both soft drinks are poisonous when consumed along with Vitamin C.
There are many troubling dimensions to the matter at hand. But first, we must dispense with some preliminary matters. Though one is not fully privy to the particulars of this case, yet one must wonder why the court is ordering NAFDAC to order NBC to take action, having found favour in the objection raised by the UK authorities. Why can’t the Court simply not order the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) Plc, which is a party to the suit, to take action?
Even when one might understand why a window of 90 days is given to the company to put “a written warning that the content of the said bottles of Fanta and Sprite soft drinks cannot be taken with Vitamin C as same becomes poisonous if taken with Vitamin C”, one still wonders why the court did not deem it necessary to also order for a recall of the bottles already in the market to make them judgement-compliant. If a matter this sensitive has been caught up in the slow-grinding wheel of the court system since 2008, are we saying that even when judgement is finally delivered in 2017, it still did not call for an emergency action and order for the company to take immediate steps to prevent further risk of a possibly poisonous combination for Nigerians?
Also, still without the benefit of having read the judgement in full, it is curious to find out from the excerpts available that even though the court “is in absolute agreement with the learned counsel for the claimants that soft drinks manufactured by Nigeria bottling company ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of colour or creed…(and) that the knowledge of the Nigeria Bottling Company that the products were to be exported is immaterial to its being fit for human consumption,” there is no record of sanction on the company or order for it to pay damages to either the claimant or those who might have been victims of what it considers gross irresponsibility on the part of NAFDAC “in its regulatory duties to the consumers of Fanta and Sprite manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company.”
It is shocking, to say the least, that NAFDAC, having not deemed it necessary to take any action on receipt of the concern expressed by the UK laboratory nine years ago, will still fold its arms and not issue a statement alerting the public to the possibility of this danger, weeks after the Court has entered judgement on this matter.
But importantly, it is the silence in which this sensitive matter has been shrouded that is even more worrying. Judgement in this matter was delivered on February 15, 2017, yet it does appear it did not make into the news chain until more than three weeks after. Indicting as that seems to be of the Nigeria media that a matter this sensitive ran a course of nine years in court without any record of coverage in the news speaks in eloquence to the state and mind of journalism practice in the country. It is shocking, to say the least, that NAFDAC, having not deemed it necessary to take any action on receipt of the concern expressed by the UK laboratory nine years ago, will still fold its arms and not issue a statement alerting the public to the possibility of this danger, weeks after the Court has entered judgement on this matter. All round, this speaks to the levity with which matters to do with the health and safety of Nigerians is treated by almost everyone charged with a mandate to stand in gap for the people.
Now, to the crux of the matter, which has to do with the level of benzoic acid, a preservative, in two of its products, which United Kingdom health authorities were uncomfortable with and on which basis the products were adjudged not fit for human consumption in that country, it is noteworthy that the defence by the Nigeria Bottling Company, from the excerpts of the judgement available, is that its products are meant for local distribution and consumption, as it does not produce for export, a position rightly not considered tenable by the learned Justice Oyebanji.
In a statement issued to the public, Nigerian Bottling Company has now gone further to shed more light on the matter. According to it, whereas, “the UK standards limit benzoic acid in soft drinks to a maximum of 150 mg/kg. Both Fanta and Sprite have benzoic levels of 200 mg/kg which is lower than the Nigerian regulatory limit of 250 mg/kg when combined with ascorbic acid and 300 mg/kg without ascorbic acid and also lower than the 600 mg/kg international limit set by CODEX.”
In other words, it is well within prescribed limits set nationally and globally and does not see the rationale why its products meant for the local market have to be assessed on the basis of the UK Standard. NBC argues that “the permissible ingredient levels set by countries for their food and beverage products are influenced by a number of factors such as climate, an example being the UK, a temperate region, requiring lower preservative levels unlike tropical countries.”
I find it difficult to see how that premise justifies the conclusion arrived at there and will rather advise that we tread with more caution on this combination until, or unless the claim here, is that there is sufficient scientific backing that as long as the benzoic level is within that set standard, there is no risk that it becomes poisonous if consumed alongside Vitamin C.
But then we must ask questions. Can we have a comparative analysis of the preservative levels of other tropical countries? What happens in countries that swing from one weather type to another, depending on the part of the country? Do they operate a uniform level or are products made region-specific within the country? In fact, what do we have to lose by aligning ourselves with the standard set by the United Kingdom, for instance? What have they found in UK that other countries might not have found? Or is still simply a factor of the nature of the climate there, as NBC has submitted? These are the questions both the manufacturer and regulatory authorities need to immediately provide reassuring answers to. That NAFDAC can be this quiet in the face of what one considers an emergency, both for the company and consumers, is troubling.
Whatever the case might be, I am concerned about the link between the premise and conclusion in Paragraph 6 of the statement by NBC in which it submits that “given the fact that the benzoic and ascorbic acid levels in Fanta as well as the benzoic acid level in Sprite produced and sold by NBC in Nigeria are in compliance with the levels approved by all relevant national regulators and the international level set by CODEX, there is no truth in the report that these products would become poisonous if consumed alongside Vitamin C.” I do not think it is sufficient or right to summarily conclude that on account of the fact that the benzoic level is within accepted standards, it then automatically means it cannot become poisonous if consumed alongside Vitamin C. I find it difficult to see how that premise justifies the conclusion arrived at there and will rather advise that we tread with more caution on this combination until, or unless the claim here, is that there is sufficient scientific backing that as long as the benzoic level is within that set standard, there is no risk that it becomes poisonous if consumed alongside Vitamin C.
But then, this is even beyond Fanta and Sprite. The more pertinent question brought to the fore by this are – Are there more things we need to be worried about? Can we be sure there is someone out there really looking out for the safety and best interest of Nigerians? To lose faith in an agency such as NAFDAC with charge over Food and Drugs is no good for the system. It has a lot of work to do redeeming itself.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi