The recent directive of the Federal Ministry of Health to Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC) to insert on its Fanta and Sprite bottles, advisory warnings on the dangers of using the products to take Vitamin C, is welcome. The Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, who issued the directive, also enjoined Nigerians to take all medicines with potable water, instead of soft drinks, to prevent unexpected drug-food interactions.
The directive was issued to ensure compliance with a recent court order to that effect, in a case filed by Fijabi Holdings and another, against NBC and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). Justice Adedayo Oyebanji of the Igbosere High Court, Lagos, had directed NAFDAC to mandate NBC to put a warning on the bottles of two of its products, Fanta and Sprite, stating that they should not be taken with Vitamin C, as they become poisonous when taken with the drug.
Following the court judgment, the Health Minister had a meeting with the Department of Food and Drug Services, Federal Ministry of Health, NAFDAC and Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) to address issues arising from it. In a statement after the meeting, the Ministry of Health clearly underscored the fact that the preservative, benzoic acid, and ascorbic acid, are approved by international food safety regulators and widely used in many food and beverage companies around the world.
It pointed out that the standard set by Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), for benzoic acid, was 600mg/kg, which was recently reviewed downwards to 250 mg/kg and adopted in 2016. The statement also said that with reference to the Codex standard and other relevant documents, SON as the standard setting body in Nigeria, in consultation with technical experts and relevant stakeholders, put the limit of benzoic acid in soft drinks in Nigeria at 250 mg/kg, based on the national climatic and storage conditions.
This standard, it observed, has been in existence since 1997 and was revised in 2008. It stressed that the levels of benzoic acid in Fanta (1 batch) and Sprite (2 batches) presented by the claimant in the court are 188.64mg/kg and 201.06mg/kg respectively, which are in compliance with both the Codex and Nigerian industrial standards.
The statement also said that the Coca-Cola products manufactured in Nigeria are safe for consumption because risk assessment was conducted on them to ascertain the maximum limits of food additives acceptable in foods. The assessment takes into consideration the environmental, storage and distribution conditions as well as the shelf life of food products.
It averred that due to environmental conditions obtainable in the United Kingdom, the standard for benzoic acid was set at a lower limit of 150 mg/kg while in Nigeria, it was set at 250mg/kg, which is even below that of Codex, which at the time of production of that batch, was set at 600mg/kg.
It is good that this matter has come to light through a court action. We urge the Nigeria Bottling Company and other manufacturers who use benzoic acid for the preservation of their products to abide by Codex standards in the country. They should also obey the Ministry of Health directive to insert advisory warnings on these products.
The NBC and all other beverage manufacturers should be mindful of the products they offer the public. The products should adhere to all safety regulations. The beverage companies should also expedite the inscription of the required warnings on their bottles, and their adverts. They should make every effort to apprise Nigerians of the dangers of using soft drinks and other beverages to take Vitamin C. This is because the consumption of benzoic acid in many soft drinks, with Vitamin C, produces a poisonous substance.
Let the general public desist from the practice of taking medicines with soft drinks, to avoid food-drug interactions.
The Federal Ministry of health and its relevant agencies should ensure that the court order on advisory warnings is fully and expeditiously complied with. They must also be on top of their responsibility of monitoring and ensuring the safety of all food products in the country.