TUESDAY Column by VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
Even before the senate’s recent decision to conduct an investigation into the locally produced coca- cola drink, popularly called ‘Coke’, Nigerians have had mixed feelings about soft drinks in general. The concern stemmed from information explosion wherein Nigerians are catching up with people in industrialised countries in becoming health conscious. And the issue was brought to public consciousness when a Lagos High Court presided over by Justice Adedayo Oyebanji in March this year gave a ruling in a suit brought by a businessman, Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi against the Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC) manufacturers of Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite brands of soft drinks.
In its ruling the court ordered the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to direct the NBC to put out a warning label on Fanta and Sprite (subject of the litigation) 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 were not permissible in their nation. The NBC had reportedly argued that its Nigeria-made products, under franchise, are not meant for export.
This in itself implies that the chemical composition of the Fanta, Sprite and coke that we drink here is different from those in European countries. Indeed, it is always said that the taste of coke sold in Nigeria is not same as those in America and Europe. The argument could be that the differing weather conditions in both continents (Africa and Europe) permits of different chemical levels for the products’ sustainable shelf life. Indeed, NBC maintained that the percentages of chemical components of its soft drinks are safe for consumption in Nigeria, adding that they pass through its “stringent” quality control processes. However, the judge ruled that products of the NBC ought to be fit for human consumption at any place.
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”.
After this ruling mandating NAFDAC to direct NBC to warn its consumers about the health hazards inherent in taking its soft drinks with Vitamin C., the ministry of health came out with a statement assuring the public that soft drinks produced in Nigeria are safe. Coca-Cola international 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”. The company reportedly said it would appeal the judgement.Nonetheless; these have not stopped many Nigerians from fretting about the health implications of soft drinks as local drinks such as kunu, zobo are becoming more popular especially as they are more affordable in comparison to current prices of soft drinks.
Nigerian consumers and the senate panel investigating NBC’s soft drinks would be more worried to learn that while more healthy variants of coca-cola are now on sale in Europe, the United States and Latin American countries, we have no such thing in Nigeria. The new coke which was launched with funfare in those countries this year, has clearly and boldly marked on it, the inscriptions: “New Improved Taste Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Zero calorie Cola”. And it comes in all varieties – bottle, plastic, can. Somr years ago NBC introduced ‘Diet Coke’ into the Nigerian market. But it did not make much impact in the market as many consumers complained that it did not have “the coca-cola” taste. Today, Diet coke is hard to comeby while its carbonated soft drinks which composition is hidden somehow in rather ineligible, small letters flood our market.
Its parent company, Coca-Cola International is witnessing declining profits as citizens worldwide move away from sweet, sugary drinks to reduce cases of high blood pressure, diabetics, tooth problems. NBC’s statement of accounts is not publicly available as it delisted from the Nigeria Stock Exchange years ago. But its parent company reported its profits for the second quarter of this year declined by some 60 per cent while its sales fell by 16 per cent. Reading the handwriting on the wall Coca-Cola is diversifying to other products as juice, water, dairy, etc.. The future belongs to healthy foods and drinks.