Palm Oil Adulteration Booms in Major Open Markets in Nigeria

Chima Azubuike FASLN

Chima Azubuike, writes about the scourge of palm oil adulteration, findings and roles of regulatory bodies.


With the collaboration of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Gombe Zonal office, 26 people including  Theophilus Sam, were nabbed and handed over to NAFDAC for prosecution.


Sam who confessed to the crime  claimed he and his family also consumes the oil for the past eight years without medical challenges.


"We were caught  at the shop as we were turning oil. We were accused of putting colour into our oil. I have to say the truth, there is something reddish we put into our oil just to make it red but it is not in all oil that we put it. Infact that is the same oil we consume at home.


"We usually put it in hybrid (Agric) palm oil (which produces within 3years), it  is  usually yellowish in colour we  put the colour so that we can get patronage, if it is not red, they won't buy. We don't put the colour to increase quantity but to get patronage," he said.


Palm Oil an edible oil and an important ingredient in the diets of many Nigerians is a product obtained from the fleshy mesocarp of the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Palm Oil is one of the most consumed edible oils within the tropics. The oil palm, is grown commercially in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, and on a small scale in other tropical areas.


Despite being commonly used, research shows that over 90% of what is sold in the open market is adulterated, poorly stored with grave health consequences.


A Fellow of African Science Literacy Network (ASLN) and a Senior Lecturer in the department of Chemistry University of Lagos, Dr. Temilola Oluseyi said the quality of palm oil is influenced by the method of processing.


Oluseyi who is an expert in Analytical Chemistry and Environmental Health said that the scale of operations differ from the level of processing and this affects the quality of the final product.


She said based on literature and other researches, "It has been shown that the Free Fatty Acid content of palm oil is determined by two factors. The first and major factor is the length of storage of the fruits used to process the palm oil. The second factor is the length of storage of the oil after processing. Oil processed from the fresh fruits have a very low initial Free Fatty Acid (FFA) content compared with those from fruits that had been stored for several days/weeks."


According to Oluseyi, "The chemical; and physical properties of palm oil are determined by these free fatty acid contents.  The free fatty acid of palm oil has an even balance of saturated and unsaturated portions and this confers some stability against oxidation to the oil as compared to other vegetable oils.


"Red palm oil is considered one of the worlds richest natural plant sources of carotenoids, which give the oil and fruit their brilliant orange-red colour."


"There has been speculation that the potential harmful effects of unrefined traditionally processed palm oil could outweigh its nutritional benefits since these oils could be containing some components that enhance numerous reactions involved in the degradation of the product."


Oluseyi further revealed that  merchants in palm oil business store their products for a very long time as they await rise in market price noting that nutritional values may be lost.


She said, "The high nutritional value especially its high oil content greatly predisposes it to deterioration. The quality of palm fruits, processing techniques, handling and storage are critical points to be considered in the production of quality palm oil."


Oluseyi emphasized that based on National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) standard of 10 µg/L of aflatoxin ( family of harmful properties produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts, for food that require heating before consumption and 4 µg/L of aflatoxin for food that do not require heating before consumption.


She added that, "Some of the methods used in processing these agricultural commodities do not remove the toxins (harmful properties) as they are therefore consumed along with the products."


Pharm. Gonzuk Bedima, State  Coordinator NAFDAC in Gombe said in identifying safe Palm oil, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control is essentially concerned about public health adding that NAFDAC regulates labeled products and other packaged items.


According to Bedima, for palm oil to be considered safe, it must be registered with NAFDAC.


He said, "It should have NAFDAC registration number and it should also have the address of manufacturer, the location address not Post Office Box. So that we can locate where the palm oil is being manufactured, as well as a batch number, this simply means in a production circle. All these are for the purpose of traceability, in case something happens.

"Most of the palm oil you get are unregistered in the open market, but in the supermarkets you are likely to run into some registered palm oil. NAFDAC is intervening because it is food, and because it is protecting public health but it is not packaged the way we want it to be packaged. It is dicey to determine the quality of palm oil sold in Open market without label and NAFDAC approval."


Bedima added that best before is most ideal for edible items, noting that expiry date is for drugs.


"For food items we use best before it doesn't have to expire but you can get the best out of it, within so and so time. So for food substances we say best before," he said.


How To Identify Safe Palm Oil

Bedima said odour is a major thing to watch out for, adding that laboratory testing  is a sure means of knowing safe or unsafe  palm oil.


He said, "Consumers should watch out for Colour, Odour, and possibly taste. Colour of Palm oil is very dicey, if you are using colour you will run into trouble. You may see a perfect looking palm oil but with an addictive dangerous to the human health. I'm yet to confirm this, I heard that the hybrid palm oil tree grown in the South does not give red oil, if that is true then we have a problem because they said it is not actually red but up North palm oil is known as red oil. If you bring colour that is not red into the North people may think it is not palm oil. Knowing our nature the people who use hybrid trees are likely to add colours.


"Of course there are approved colours for palm oil, things like Carotene but some consider it expensive. So they want to use very cheap colourants like Sudan 1,2, 3. Sudan is meant for leather companies as dye but people add it into palmoil to give it red colour. You may only know if only you are a frequent user of palm oil, and you know the physical characteristics, that is why the lab is our saviour in this matter."

Gonzuk said based on laboratory investigation, Sam and the 25 others used various substances which include Sudan 1-2-3 to boost the quantity of their products.


"The products handed over to us, we had to take them to laboratory, from the result obtained from the products, a good number of them were adulterated. Some were adulterated with Akamu (pap) findings show alot of starch, Some with the harmful Sudan 1,2 and 3 they are carcinogenic substances," he added.


When our correspondent toured major oil markets  'Kasuwa Manja' across Gombe state,  in Gombe LGA -Baban Kasuwa, Yalmatu Deba LGA- Kwadon, Shongom LGA-Lalepido  amongst many others one thing is evident from  the many samples collected ranging from; colour, taste, and smell.


A seller of palm oil around Tunfure Market Joshua Christopher, said market forces determine how long oil is stored. "there are times that market tends to be fast and people buy oil and some order times consumers have enough. Some times one can sell a drum under one week, or within a month."


Christopher added that he knows oil has best before noting that he tries to determine the freshness of the product to ensure it doesn't exceed the best before date.


He said, "for me before I buy I examine the surface, how watery is the palm oil, the taste matters. God forbid that I add harmful colourants. I'm working towards selling certified processed palm oil, I want to be sure about what I'm selling to the public. I want to call on government to ban Indonesia from bringing palm oil into Nigeria, this makes market forces low and when you examine their product it is not as good as what we have in Nigeria."


A regular consumer, a woman who simply identified herself as Hajiya Sambo said,"It is only God that can help us, before buying it I just ask them if there is an addictive but as you know no trader will just say yes but the taste tells. I have once cooked meal that just changed taste, and colour. I had to pour the food away. I'm not ready to die of cancer."


What is the Role of National Institute for Oil and Palm Research

Mrs Marian Ekebafe , Principal research officer with soils and Land management division, says NIFOR does not carry out regulation on oil palm produce as a focal focus adding that  her agency is concerned about indiscriminate sales of palm oil.


Ekebafe said, "we  carry out research on five mandate crop out of which oil palm is one of them. So consumers protection agency and NAFDAC are the best bodies to regulate adulterated palm oil.


"Oil palm is one common oil that people sell indiscriminately without passing the necessary agency for validation. The only way out is to buy validated and branded palm oil from registered companies. However the media is expected as well as our End use division in educating people on how to identify adulterated palm oil, this will discourage purchase and further adulteration."

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Findings from the research carried out in Lagos Markets

Oluseyi said samples of branded and unbranded palm oil were purchased from the open markets and super markets in Lagos.


"It could be deduced that the significant amount of impurities obtained in many researches on the quality of palm oil could be linked to the kind of storage facilities most oil marketers use during storage (hoarding) as they await rise in market price. Most of the storage containers are mostly metallic in nature and sometimes rust with time, thereby releasing their particles into the oil. Metal contaminants in the storage containers seep into the oil and pose a health risk to the consumers as most of these contaminants are toxic and can have several health effects in the body such as damage of organs such as the brain, kidney, lungs, liver, and blood. Long-term exposure of the body to heavy metal can progressively lead to other neurological degenerative diseases and may also cause cancer.


"Apart from metal contamination of palm oil from storage containers, during production or sometimes during sale in the open markets, some other contaminants could be deposited by air or breeze as most of the unbranded palm oil samples are sold in the open markets.


"Adulterated palm oil is evident in the quality of the physicochemical parameters which is an indicator of the level of adulteration, deterioration, storage condition, and handling process during production. Hence, there is need for the government regulatory agencies to enforce quality control and assurance in the samples of palm oil that is processed for commercial purposes," Oluseyi stated.


Way forward

On his part, Gombe State Coordinator Standard Organization of Nigeria, Umar Yakubu said the organization will not fail to respond using relevant laws to prevent adulteration.


Yakubu said, "If we get distress call on any product we swing into action where ever they are, we will pick samples test and prosecute if necessary. Every week we go out for market surveillance, and when we have consumer complaint. The issue of standardization is a collective responsibility, if your neighbour is adulterating and you fail to report, I as an agent I may not be able to know. Once residents have genuine information on products that are adulterated, they should get in touch with our office. We will do the needful as we are mandated by Act 14 of 2015 of SON."


Oluseyi added that,"Hence, there is need for the government to enforce quality control assurance procedures wherever palm oil is being processed for commercial purposes. The government should also create a scheme that tests and confirms the benchmark of the palm oil before their sale in market Mechanized or modern methods of processing of palm oil should be embraced by the local community, which could be through the setting up of mills with modern facilities. Modern storage facilities should also be used to minimize contamination of processed palm oil. With better handling and improved hygienic methods of processing, the palm oil produced locally could meet the stipulated standard for palm oil in Nigeria.


"Since most of the locally produced and unbranded palm oils have poor quality below the required benchmark, modern methods of processing of palm oil should be embraced by the local community, and this can be achieved through the setting up of oil mills that are equipped with modern facilities. With better handling and improved hygienic methods of processing, the palm oil produced locally could meet the stipulated standard for palm oil in Nigeria.


"The use of metallic drums and containers should be replaced with plastics or other suitable containers to minimize contamination of processed palm oil."


The NAFDAC boss said manufacturers do not need to have the trees to get necessary registration and approvals, adding that registration has been simplified for small scale business owners.


According to Bedima, "They can buy in drums and repackage with their name but of course you need to have a registered company with Corporate Affairs Commission but the agency has decided that for small scale people you don't need to bother about them having trade marks and they can be registered at the zonal level, if they have a trade mark it an advantage but if they don't let the company name reflect in the name of the product."

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