TUESDAY Column by VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
One year after, an ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives that investigated the safety of carbonated drinks in Nigeria chaired by the House’s Majority Leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila has just released its report and its recommendations subsequently adopted by the House. Among them are the following: effective from January, 1, 2019, a warning label should be printed on Fanta and Sprite, both products of the Nigeria Bottling Company, stating that they are harmful when taken with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C); from January 1, 2019, the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) should compel producers and manufacturers of soft drinks to indicate all chemicals, acids, colorants and preservatives contained in their products on the packs or bottles no matter how negligible they are; with effect from January 1, 2019, expiry date should be printed on all carbonated and non-carbonated drinks produced and marketed in Nigeria; review of standards should be undertaken bi-annually by the regulating agency particularly the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) in partnership with NAFDAC.
It also recommended that the regulating agencies be adequately funded by the government to enable them effectively monitor adulteration of all drinks produced and marketed in Nigeria. This implies that there are adulterated (fake) drinks that often slip off the radar of both NAFDAC and SON; find their way to the market and ultimately consumers. NAFDAC, SON and their parent body, the Federal Ministry of Health have to up their game especially given that any fake, sub standard and therefore dangerous drink assimilated could be difficult to flush out from the body’s system immediately and could in fact lead to death.
It would be recalled that the composition of ingredients used for manufacture of soft drinks in our country came to the fore following a ruling given by a Lagos High Court in a suit filed by a businessman, Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi against the Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC) manufacturers of Coke, Sprite and Fanta brands of soft drinks. In its judgement in March 2017, the court ordered NAFDAC to direct the NBC to put out a warning label on Fanta and Sprite drinks stating that they are dangerous when consumed with Vitamin C. Fijabi had taken the company to court following confiscation of a consignment of Sprite and Fanta he had shipped to the United Kingdom (UK). The UK authorities based their action on the fact that both products after tests contained high levels of benzoic acid and sunflower additives that are not permissible in their nation. The NBC had reportedly argued that its Nigeria-made products, under franchise from Coca Cola International are not meant for export. It maintained that the percentages of chemical components of its soft drinks are safe for consumption in Nigeria, adding that they passed through its “stringent” quality control processes. However, the judge ruled that the products ought to be fit for human consumption anywhere in the world.
Said he, “It is manifest that NAFDAC has been grossly irresponsible in its regulatory duties to the consumers of Fanta and Sprite manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company. In my respective view, NAFDAC has failed the citizens of this great nation by its certification as satisfactory for human
consumption products which in the United Kingdom failed sample test for human consumption and which become poisonous in the presence of Ascorbic Acid ordinarily known as Vitamin C, which can be freely taken by the unsuspecting public with the company’s Fanta and Sprite… Consumable products ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of race, colour or creed”.
The court’s ruling mandating NAFDAC to direct NBC to warn consumers about the health hazards of consuming its products with Vitamin C caused some stir as newspapers reported it with some scary headlines, some of which were that the products in question are poisonous and unfit for human consumption. Consequently, Ministry of Health came out with a statement assuring the public that soft drinks produced in Nigeria are safe. Coca-Cola international, the parent company of NBC also said, “All our products are safe and strictly adhere to regulations in the countries where they are sold while complying with our company’s stringent global safety and quality standards”.
It was against this background of the apparent panic which the court’s verdict engendered that the National Assembly decided to launch an investigation. NBC and NAFDAC reportedly said they would lodge an appeal against the judgement. From an ordinary Nigerian’s point of view, one does not really understand NBC’s grouse against the verdict to want to challenge it. Is it disagreeing with the court’s ruling that it should put out a warning label on its Sprite and Fanta products intimating consumers about inherent dangers of taking them with Vitamin C? Is implementing this directive burdensome to it? NBC and other soft drinks manufacturers should realise that no amount of money or financial gain can equate a human life. The National Assembly has now affirmed the court’s ruling in its recommendation, albeit giving it a nine month period within which to comply.
Even then, it should be remembered that the Nigeria Bottling Company and other producers in its sectoral group under the aegis of the Nigeria Employers Consultative Agency (NECA) had protested against the National Assembly’s investigation committee. Their lawyer had asked manufacturers summoned by the committee for a public hearing not to appear before it, arguing that the matter was in court and that the National Assembly has no powers to summon private companies/individuals. This prompted the Committee’s chairman to give a terse reply thus, “Some of these companies we summoned are even quoted on the floor of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, yet they turn around to say the National Assembly does not have jurisdiction over them. Are you a law unto yourselves simply because you are private?”
He continued, “They have quoted the House rules that once a matter is in court it will be prejudice to discuss it but that is not what the rule says, it says, ‘if a matter is in court and in the opinion of the House or the Speaker, investigation will jeopardise the course of justice then, it can be discontinued’ but this is not the case”. And Gbajabiamilla concluded, “Any attempt to scuttle this investigation will be met with the full wrath of the law. Let me sound a note of warning that this committee will go ahead with its work and come up with a resolution which will be binding on both public and private companies”.
It has now completed its findings, made its resolution by way of recommendations and these have been passed by the House of Representatives. Now, NBC and NAFDAC have been given two directives, namely, one by a Lagos High Court in March, 2017 and another by the House of Representatives in March 2018. Enforcement of the recommendations will enable consumers to make informed choices about the soft drinks. Nigerian consumers are eagerly waiting to see whether NBC and other the soft drinks manufacturers will comply in January.