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Health Scare As Food Contamination Surges





 *Ponmo, Fruits, Vegetables On Watch-list



Lukmon Akintola; Oyin Somorin; Ifeoma Onoye; David Oloke




Aside from the rising insecurity and banditry in Nigeria, another major source of concern is the staggering rise in contaminated and or adulterated food products in the country.

With most families struggling to eat three square meals, they are now being faced with the additional burden of scrutinising food products, once considered staple, if they are fit for consumption. This is despite the fact that only a scientific process can truly affirm the condition of any food products.



The situation is so grave that consumers, including pastors, have to say quick prayers before buying for fear of buying a means to their death.

From cow skin, which locals call ponmo, to beans, meats of all kinds, vegetables, tomatoes, and even fruits, nothing appears to be safe anymore. The true condition of what is available in the markets is really unknown; ‘what you see is not what you get’.


Tales of unripe fruits forcefully ripened with the use of all sorts of chemicals are not new on the streets and in the markets. The story of killer ponmo remains legendary, so is that of the killer beans. Today, the sales of dead, sick or ailing cows as meat for parties have also become popular.

Days back, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Jide Idris alerted residents of the state to the circulation of ‘poisonous ponmo‘ in some markets in the state.

A statement credited to Adeola Salako, Director of Public Affairs, Lagos State Ministry of Health, announced the development.


According to the statement, the sellers trade their wares at Ojo and Iba Local Government areas of the state at odd hours.

It further revealed that the traders were very active between 4 am and 6 am at various locations such as Volkswagen bus stop, Iyana Iba, and Afolabi Ege Markets.

Though unconfirmed, a company said to be located at the Ijedodo area of Iba LCDA was indicted as the source of supply of this toxic ponmo.

Poisonous food items are not limited to meat and ponmo, as fruits are also included.

Abdullahi Umar, who sells fruits in Onosa Junction, in Ibeju Lekki, Lagos State attributes the sales of bad and poisonous fruits to both economic factors and greed. According to him, “the economic situation in Nigeria has made a lot of people so desperate such that they are ready to collect the last penny you have in your pocket before you can walk away with anything from their shop.  Most of what they sell comes cheap, but by the time you bring them to your shop, you have to consider the cost of transportation and how to recoup the money for the perished products. So, for those who are too greedy, they buy cheap maturing products hoping that it would get ripe in their store before selling them. However, when they fail to get ripe properly because they were not matured before harvesting them, they are forced to cut corners. That is for the greedy ones, but the more reasonable ones sell their produce at a rate fairly higher than normal. And this is why you hear people asking; how can you sell two oranges or three mangoes for one hundred naira, but that is better because you are still buying healthy fruits. That is what I do to recoup my losses.”

Asked why some traders wouldn’t mind bringing poisonous produce to the market without regard for the safety of people’s health, Umar makes a shocking revelation. “Don’t blame it all on the traders, what of the government. These people don’t want to do what they are doing, but it is survival of the fittest. The government has a role to play, but they are not playing it. I am not justifying what they are doing, but you have to understand that if you can bring ripe produce from Kano State or Niger State to Lagos State within two days, no one will want to buy unripe fruits hoping that they would get ripe in the store or even think of using chemicals to ripen them. So, we all have a role to play to avoid this situation. If the government makes good roads, the trader can service his customers easily and the damages are reduced. However, without that people will always cut corners to make ends meet.”

However, there are people who don’t agree with Umar, as the consequences of some of these actions are indeed shocking. The story of Akin Ajayi (not real name) would definitely shock you.

Feeling hungry and not used to eating outside his house, Ajayi bought what he assumed to be fresh banana from a seller.


For him, it was just to help him pending when he gets home to a good meal, but only if he knew. Having eaten the banana, the man settled for his journey from Ogba to Ikorodu in Lagos State. A journey of about two hours saw him stopping to use the toilet about six times. That would mark the beginning of his end.

Subsequently, Ajayi noticed that his stomach began to bulge. Such was the situation before he passed on about six months after eating the banana he bought on his way home from work. Unknown to him, the banana he bought was forced to become ripe with the aid of a chemical known as carbide.

Speaking about fruits ripened with chemicals, a seller at Excellence Hotel roundabout, Aguda, Ogba, Lagos State who gave her name as Agnes said she had always known that people ripen fruits with a chemical popularly known as carbide, but she had never tried using it to force fruits to ripen before its time.

“I have heard that the chemical is harmful to health and that it causes stomach ache. Where I come from in the east, I only know the traditional method of ripening banana which is using beans brown sack to cover it in a drum, then sprinkling water every morning until the colour starts to change. It was when I came to Lagos I started hearing of carbide,” she said.

Another woman popularly called Mama Bisi, who sells plantain a few blocks away from Agnes agreed that she once used the chemical to ripen her plantain. She explained that when she found out that it can be harmful to the health, she stopped using it and learned how to ripen the plantain and bananas the traditional way.

“When I stopped using the chemical, I was told that stuffing the plantains and bananas inside doubled beans sack and sealing it up with big nylon sack helps, it ripens fast without using chemical. Though it is slower, it is healthier,” she stated.

Nigerians appear not to be safe at all, as if they are not exposed to risk from fruits, it is food items, and where it is not that, it is from meat or even cow skin popular as ponmo in the south west.

Several years back, the story of how killer ponmo took over the market was everywhere, as it saw people avoiding what some had considered a delicacy for a long period.

Described as being thicker than the usual one often consumed, it was also said to be darker in complexion and cheaper. In the real sense and to an unsuspecting buyer, there is hardly nothing to differentiate the poisonous ponmo from the edible one.

However, being cheaper was one of the attributes that made it preferable in the view of a lot of people, especially the masses.

Baba Zainab, who sells meat at Itele, Ogun State reacted to the existence of the poisonous cow skin popular as ponmo in the market.


He advised on how to identify both bad ponmo and meat, saying that it is easy. “The meat will have an unpleasant odour, the colour of the meat or cow skin would change. If a chemical is used to preserve the meat or ponmo, you will still know because it will be soft and slimy. This is why most sellers use potassium to wash the ponmo when it is about to spoil.”

The case of the killer beans was also popular. In 1999 there were reports that at least 16 people had died in South-western Nigeria after eating beans.

In another report, four people were said to have been hospitalised in Ilorin, capital of Kwara State after allegedly eating beans meal suspected to be poisonous. Two of the family members had complained of stomach ache, but the development later became complicated as the victims started vomiting blood before they were rushed to a nearby private hospital.

One factor, which seems to make the sales of poisonous item thrive in Nigeria, is the fact that there is inadequate enforcement. Interestingly, except for a few cases in Lagos and Ogun States where some beans seller using an insecticide to kill weevils destroying their stock were arrested, arrests have been far and in-between.

In 2017, the Lagos State Police Command arrested three brothers namely Faith, Chidioke and Sunday Ogbonna for allegedly using an insecticide to preserve beans.


Living in Adenekan Street, Alagbado area of Lagos State, the police were called after a 51-year-old woman caught one of the brothers in the act.

Another case was that of an Igbo boy named Chidi. Late last year, in Lafenwa Ogun State, Chidi, who sells raw food items such as rice, beans, crayfish, garri, and others at a cheap rate was arrested for selling substandard products.

Chidi was arrested after Mrs. Ojo Afolayan bought beans from him only for her kids to fall sick the next day leading to their hospitalisation.

Speaking on the experience, he said: “Some men came to my shop; I thought they came to buy foodstuffs only for them to arrest me. They said that I was selling poisonous beans. I was surprised and before I could say anything they handcuffed and took me to the station. It was at the station that I saw one of my customers crying and claiming that the bean I sold was responsible for her children’s sickness.”

Asked how to identify poisonous bean treated with sniper, DD Force, and other insecticides, Chidi said that it would be a difficult task because bean is odourless.

While enforcement might be poor, there seem to be efforts to confirm if suspected items are edible, as there have been reports of confiscated produce being taken to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), in order for tests if they are consumable.

Reacting to the health hazard that consuming this substandard and poisonous produce exposes individuals to, Aderibigbe Michael, a medical officer in one of the local governments in Lagos State said: “The use of carbide is common in Nigeria. The health is often shared on social media to create awareness.”

Asked on what could be the health implications on humans, Aderibigbe said: “The health implications can be viewed from two perspectives. Most times, five percent of the effect could be seen from immediate reactions like hypersensitivity reactions. Then, 95 percent could be long term consequences. Continuous consumption of such items can result in diseases like cancer, liver, kidney, and lungs problems.”

Gone were the days when food vendors were afraid of local sanitary inspectors because of sanctions if they erred. Today, the inspectors feed fat on vendors in exchange of their substandard regulations.

Most schools pay little attention also to the nature of coloured cold drinks some hawkers sell to schoolchildren.

With poisonous items finding their way into the market time and time again, what becomes of the health of the average Nigerian is now a major talking point

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