It is important that food and drinks are processed properly
Increasingly, many Nigerians are dying, ironically, from what ought to sustain and keep them alive. Last month 10 people lost their lives and about 400 others hospitalised in Kano due to the consumption of adulterated sachet water and substandard juices. “The consumption of this fake and substandard product has telling effects on the kidney, and other vital organs of the body,” said the state commissioner for health, Aminu Ibrahim Tsanyawa.
Not long ago, there were disturbing incidents of deaths resulting from eating some cassava-based meals. In one major incident reported in Etiosa area of Lagos, six persons died after an amala (yam flour meal) while 20 others were hospitalised for what was described as severe food contamination. In the latest report, a man and four of his children died after a bowl of cassava flour meal.
Paradoxically, cassava-based dishes are widely consumed in Nigeria, and indeed in many places in Africa, as in South America, where it is a major source of carbohydrates. They are by far the commonest meals, with popular appeal to the poor. Indeed, Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava and it is one of the major crops the then Jonathan administration used to boost its agricultural “transformation”.
But Cassava has one major drawback: the roots and leaves of poorly processed cassava plants contain a substance named Linamarin which when eaten is converted to cyanide, a poisonous gas which could be fatal when inhaled or ingested.
Experts say that poor preparation of cassava meals can leave enough of the poisonous substance to cause acute intoxication, goiter and in some cases death. The processing of cassava often employed by the traditional methods and rural women (by crushing, soaking in water to ferment and baking) is said to be good enough to effectively contain the toxic content found in cassava, whether of the sweet or bitter variety. But many attribute cases of food poisoning to the urge to make quick money. These days, many of the producers adopt short-cut processing techniques as a batch or two may have been processed poorly, which turn out to endanger many lives. In some cases, particularly those with high cyanide level, mere exposure to the volatile substances while being processed can cause some health disorders.
The most endangered, according to experts, are people who are already malnourished as they lack the proper mix of amino-acids which are vital ingredients in detoxifying the poison. Sometime ago, some three patients were rushed to the Accident and Emergency Ward of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital after eating a meal of “eba”, perhaps the most popular cassava food variety, in a case described as “fatal cyanide poisoning.” The patients reportedly vomited besides complaining of abdominal pains immediately after the meal. The patients later became unconscious and diagnosed of renal failure. They died shortly of cardiac- related diseases.
But in some other cases, there was no conclusive evidence to show that the deaths were triggered by the cyanide contents in the meal. Even so, others have said that there is the need to set standards for tolerable levels of cyanide in cassava-related foods, a measure which will be difficult to enforce under our current environment.
What is not in doubt is that cassava has been a staple food in Nigeria for a long time. To that extent, experts are agreed that the present mode of processing cassava for any of its varieties – gari, amala, fufu, tapioca – etc. are good enough to reduce the harmful cyanide content to below toxic level. What the authorities can do, perhaps, is a campaign to sensitise the producers to take time in processing their cassava meals, as they had always done. This also should apply to any other food items or locally processed drinks.