You must have seen them. Or perhaps tasted of them, albeit unwittingly. Adulterated palm oil or killer palm oil as some people have come to term them. They are everywhere in the Nigerian market. For the not-too discerning buyer, these set of oils even get the nod ahead of the pure unadulterated palm oil on the shelves because they come across as more alluring. What are the tell-tales? Redness; they are unusually red and attractive, while some are almost impossible to differentiate.
From Ikotun market in Lagos to Jankara, to Mushin, Ajegunle, in Lagos, Ibadan and as far as Potiskum in Jos, the story is the same. Nigerians go to the market with the intention of buying palm oil to cook their meals but end up with poison. Yes, consumers do not die immediately, but that does not make it less poisonous; or how does one describe inedible substances and chemicals deliberatly mixed with food ingredients and sold to innocent people?
Palm oil ordinarily enjoys a universal acceptance amongst all Nigerian tribes, to the extent that no home-made meal is complete without it (or vegetable oil).
Palm oil in Nigeria is derived mainly from African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), popularly referred to as Palm Tree. It is naturally a reddish-orange colour because it has very high beta-carotene content. It is richly endowed with so many health and nutritional benefits. According to Organicfacts.com, an online health journal, the health benefits of palm oil include improving energy levels, preventing cancer, boosting the immune system, helping to prevent aging, protecting against heart diseases and also beneficial to pregnant women. More recently, it has become more popular because of the risk of bad cholesterol associated with other cooking oil. Aside energy, its beta-carotene content also boosts hormonal balance in the body, and enhances vision. The source also states that it prevents macular degeneration and cataracts, thereby enhancing sight.
This is why this habit of adulterating the oil is attracting so much attention. “What else do we turn to?” Morayo, a housewife around Mushin area of Lagos, asked this reporter almost rhetorically, during one of his fact-finding mission. Palm oil also has high level of HDL, good cholesterol, which helps to maintain a good balance of cholesterol in the body and by implication, ensure a healthier cardiovascular system. It’s rich in Tocopherols , a type of vitamin A antioxidants, that also help to prevent cancer by neutralising free radicals, which experts say cause healthy cells to mutate into cancerous cells.
It is therefore unfortunate that this rather healthy gift of nature is gradually being bastardised to the extent that man now needs to be more alert when buying and consuming it or products for which it serves as a component.
Adulterated palm oil everwhere
At Ikotun Market, arguably one of the biggest markets in Lagos, an elderly woman, Mrs Saratu (not real name), who deals in yam and other farm stuff in the market, spoke of how adulterated palm oil has taken over the market. “Adulterated palm oil is what we have in the market right now. I mistakenly bought it sometime ago and regretted it. It is adulterated with chemicals and colouring. I got to know the secret when one of the sellers operated close to me, before she closed down due to debt incurred from a microfinance bank.”
Asked if there is a marked difference between the pure oil and the adulterated one, Mrs Saratu said, “It is attractive when you behold it in a bottle, but when you cook with it, the chemical with which it had been mixed will not allow you to enjoy the soup. Apart from showing in the colour, which makes the soup as red as blood, the chemical does not allow you to enjoy the soup, as it mars the taste and makes it nauseating. And that is aside whatever health danger the chemical may carry. And as for me, anything that will harm my body, I have sworn not to take, except if I don’t know.”
Continuing, she said: “I wonder why they are not just selling the oil pure, even if it is more expensive, at least, people will eat and remain healthy. And it is not as if the mixed one is cheaper. I think it is mainly because the chemical and colouring make the oil red and more attractive. Please, help us tell the government to look into it before these greedy traders kill us all. They don’t seem to care about the risk they are putting the people through. All they are interested in is the money they are making.”
Asked how she gets her supply now, or if she now has a way of detecting the adulterated type, Mrs. Saratu said she now buys from source in Edo State, since it is not so easy to determine which has been mixed. “I give money to my contacts who supply me yam in Edo and other states to help me buy pure unadulterated palm oil from source, and this is what I take with my family and sales people who live with me. I buy in gallons, but how many people can do that?”
Another woman, Lara, a journalist in Lagos, said the situation is horrible and dangerous to healthy living. Her experience: “I bought it once and it was really appalling. The odour that greeted me the moment I got home was really offensive. Aside that, there were so many dirt and particles; most of them blackish. It was so bad that I just closed the lid and went out to buy another oil. I couldn’t cook with it. I think one of the reasons I fell for it was because I did not taste it. Usually, I taste my oil before buying. “
Since then, Lara said she has been more careful, taking time to always taste the oil and stick to one customer, whom she can trust and who has so far never failed her.
Unlike Mrs. Saratu, Lara said the one she bought was not attractive. “It had the same reddish-orange colour but was clearly adulterated. And it was not as if it was cheaper. As a matter of fact, they even make it look more expensive by giving it a higher price tag. That was last December, but after that, I have been extremely careful, making sure I only buy from one customer, whom I trust.,” she said.
Yetunde, another journalist, also recounted how her experience made her stop buying palm oil in Lagos. Last year, she said her sister bought a 250 litre palm oil, which they both shared. “Initially,” she said, “the content looked really good. Even when we started using it, it tasted really nice. However, by the time we used it halfway, we discovered that the colour and taste were changing. The content in the gallon had become thick and black. It was then that it dawned on me that the palm oil was adulterated. We stopped using it immediately.”
So now, she buys her palm oil only outside Lagos. “Each time my sister or anyone is travelling out of Lagos, I ask them to help me buy from source, to avoid making the same mistake.” She would not allow some bad people to poison her and her family in their greed.
Barakat, a housewife and businesswoman, also condemned the adulterated palm oil, which she said may be the cause of the numerous cases of cancer now afflicting the country. A 41-year-old woman, she said in her younger days, cancer was virtually unheard of and wondered why some people, would, for the sake of making money, be poisoning their countrymen and women. To underline her angst over the adulterated oil, Barakat told this reporter of how she has taken it upon herself to enlighten as many people as she knows and come across, never to buy the palm oil. She does not know exactly what chemicals it is adulterated with, but vows that they cannot be edible stuffs. She also wonders what NAFDAC is doing about it.
It is from Cotonou – Head, Ikotun palm oil sellers
One of the wholesale dealers in Ikotun Market, who gave his name as John, would not divulge any information. He denied knowing about adulterated palm oil and would not tell where he sources his supply from, save an umbrella statement that: “My oga buys it from the East.”
Attempts at getting information from the retailers also met with denials and rebuffs.
Ifeanyi, a bulky elderly man, is the head of palm oil retailers in Ikotun Market, Lagos. In an attempt to unravel the riddle behind the unwholesome practice and ask if anything is being done to stem the situation, this reporter sought his opinion.
He admitted that he is aware of the adulterated palm oil, but said it is the ones brought to Nigeria from Cotonou via Idiroko border that are adulterated. On his own, he said he does not mix his oil and that he sells it as it is delivered from the producers.
When asked what the perpetrators use to mix the oil, he said he did not know. When this reporter told him about his finding that the dealers mix the oil with bad cholesterol vegetable oil, colouring and other chemicals, he said he was not aware.
And on the effort his association is making to stem the practice, Ifeanyi said the association tries its best, but insisted that it is a difficult situation, as it is hard to catch the perpetrators in the act. On some occasions, he confessed that they have had to fight some of those involved in the practice and admitted almost helplessly that “they just seem unwilling to desist.”
As for him, Ifeanyi said he sells original, unadulterated palm oil, but disclosed that even the consumers/buyers make things difficult, as they always ask for the adulterated ones, albeit unknowingly, because of its ‘rich’ colour and attractiveness. “And you know that in business, demand drives supply. So the sellers try to meet up with demand.,” He said.
‘They’re all culpable’
Mrs Saratu on sighting this reporter with the head of the palm oil sellers association, however, vowed that even he is into the unwholesome practice. She expressed surprise that even Ifeanyi was the head of the oil; sellers and said that is a sign that ‘we’re all in trouble.’
When asked if she ever sighted NAFDAC officials cracking down on the adulterated oil sellers, Mrs. Saratu said she had no idea.
Nowhere is safe
For those taking solace in buying the products from outside Lagos, it might not yet be uhuru, as some unscrupulous elements are even said to be engaged in the dangerous habit. Sometime last year, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NCDSC) arrested some suppliers in Potiskum, Jos, for allegedly adulterating the product with dye. Their arrests at the time led to the confiscation of several other samples, which after lab tests by NAFDAC, showed traces of high acid, high saponification and high relative density.
Lawal Musa Dadingelma, the state’s coordinator of NAFDAC, confirmed that the adulterated palm oil samples tested contained dye which is capable of causing cancer when deposited in human body. And these were just a tip of the iceberg of people who might be engaged in the nefarious activity. The Medical Director of Sani Abacha Specialist Hospital, Damaturu, Dr. Garba Fika, was also quoted by a national daily to have confirmed an increase in the number of cancer cases. Ditto, several other hospitals in the country. Even the ministry of health has confirmed this.
Last year, Francis Durosinmi-Etti, a professor of Oncology and Radiotherapy at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, disclosed that 500,000 new cases are diagnosed yearly in the country. Speaking at his inaugural lecture, titled, “That We May Overcome Cancer: The Odyssey of a Radiation Oncologist” in Lagos, cited lack of basic infrastructure and late report by patients, as reasons. But with the spread in these ‘evil’ palm oil, the professor might have overlooked one major factor, albeit unwittingly.
Dr Abubakar Jimoh, Director, Special Duties at NAFDAC, confirmed that the trend is not new and that the agency is aware of the dangerous practice. Even as far back as ten years ago, when it first got wind of the trend, he said the agency, under the late Prof Dora Akunyili, waged a ceaseless battle against the perpetrators in the markets. “We also made it a point to educate the public about the presence of the product and sensitise them. We discovered a particular colourant, with which they mixed the oil to make it more attractive and get people to buy.”
During a lab test, Jimoh said they discovered that the palm oil is mixed with of Azo dye. “Azo dye is a dye used in dying clothes and is not to be consumed because it is highly carcinogenic, which means it can cause cancer. It is the major colourant used but it is dangerous enough.”
He said the first challenge the agency faced back then was whether to dabble into it or not, since it especially didn’t fall into its purview. “We were torn between cracking down on it and being passive, because it does not really fall under the purview of NAFDAC. NAFDAC, based on law, is concerned with processed food. But it got to a point, where we decided that we had to think outside the box. For the sake of the people, we had to redefine our role and commenced a public enlightenment process to get people aware. Market women particularly.”
He confessed though that the agency has not sustained the battle, especially because it has had to do battle on so many fronts. “There are so many issues, including fake/counterfeit drugs that is still daunting, not to talk of other processed foods. There is also the issue of bringing the quality of export agricultural products to par with standards. “
He concluded that what the agency needs still is “a lot of public enlightenment. If people are aware, then they will not fall prey. Another thing we’re planning is to begin to make people scapegoats. So far we have been restraining ourselves from literally taking over the role of the police, so to speak.”
He admits that the agency would eventually resort to cracking down, but said for now, it aiming to get Nigerians to take their destinies in their hands and try to be vigilant and careful. I can tell you that the local market women have very discernible eyes to detect such adulterated product. “By just looking and tasting, they are able to decipher and differentiate. It is called organoleptic test. Even scientists do organoleptic tests to eliminate products before embarking on tests. That is the first natural test, before any lab tests.”
Jimoh, however, said the agency’s Food Nutrition and Applied Nutrition Department recently disclosed to him that it is part of their plan to carry out a nationwide survey. “That survey will help us take samples from markets and suppliers across the country to see what new tricks or addition they’ve brought on aside azo dye. The survey would also aim to gauge how impactful our enlightenment campaigns have been on the market habits of the consumers. It is after that we will take more actions, such as raids. The only raids we have done in the past were on vegetable oil.”