Everywhere you go in the country, ponmo has become a staple delicacy for consumption. It is an important ingredient in the preparation of various meals, cutting across ethnic divides.
Although it is said to lack nutritional benefits, the fleshy cowhide known in local parlance as ponmo is a delight many Nigerians cannot do without. And with Nigerians displaying their ingenuity and versatility in converting cowhide into delicacies, appetite for it has continued to increase daily.
Ponmo is derived from cowhide after it has been tenderised in hot water and the hair removed with razor blade or burnt with fire fuelled mostly by disused tyres and plastic. To its consumers, a good day’s meal is incomplete without the presence of this hide that comes in two variants, cream and brown.
Aside from housewives that have embraced the delicacy, it has also become a very lucrative business for people who have found a way to rake in extra cash by preparing it for commercial consumption. They do this by cooking and having it well garnished with pepper and onions, and hawking it along streets, markets and bus stops as ponmo alata.
In the eastern part of the country, the love for ponmo with little beef attached to it is really relished and it doesn’t come cheap either. Despite the wildly held notion in some quarters that cowhide has no nutritional value, its growing demand has not decreased and its price keeps skyrocketing.
However, lovers of this delicacy might be in for a shocker, following the recent alarm over the presence of poisonous ponmo in markets across Lagos State.
Commissioner for health, Dr. Jide Idris, said three persons connected with the sale of toxic cow skin have been arrested in the Ojo and Iba areas of the state, and large quantities of the poisonous hide confiscated. They have also been charged to court.
Idris said samples of the confiscated ponmo had been sent to the laboratory of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) for analysis.
He disclosed that the attention of the state government was drawn to the activities of traders who deal in the sale of the poisonous cow skin at odd hours in different locations in Ojo and Iba councils.
“Preliminary investigations and suspects tracing revealed that the traders were very active in the early hours, between 4am and 6am, at various locations such as Volkswagen Bus Stop, Iyana Iba and Afolabi Ege markets, all within Ojo Local Government Council and Iba Local Council Development Areas of the State. Furthermore, a company said to be located at Ijedodo area of Iba LCDA was indicted as source of supply of this toxic ponmo and has subsequently been put under surveillance.”
Investigations by Daily Sun revealed that the said toxic ponmo had been in circulation for a long time and it is nothing close to the regular ones initially available to consumers in the market. This particular hide is said to be brown in colour as well as very thick and fleshy. It also has a pungent smell that differentiates it from the others.
It was further discovered that the toxic cowhide is sourced from warehouses in Ajao Estate and somewhere on Cosharis Street, Kirikiri Town. It was also learnt that they are allegedly shipped into Lagos from some East African countries and mostly escorted by men dressed in military uniform.
Most people residing close to where the loads of cowhide were daily offloaded said the containers usually arrived late at night or in the early hours of the morning. They lamented being traumatised by decaying, nauseous odour that emanates from the warehouses, and which usually envelops the environment for weeks.
Ugochukwu Odika, a business owner by Eleganza Bus Stop, off Asa Afariogun Street, Ajao Estate, said the major dealers and distributors of the ponmo usually arrived the warehouses in the early hours of the morning with various vehicles. He also claimed that several reports had been made to the authorities, but that nothing had been done to investigate the suspicious activities within the axis.
“I don’t know how they treat the hide because of the decaying smell before circulating them in the market. When you see the ponmo, you will keep wondering the type of animal they got them from because it is obvious it is not from cow. This type is usually very massive. Only God will save us in this country. There is nothing people won’t do for money,” he said.
However, this is not the first time that there would be a scare over lethal cowhide in markets and the dangers associated with consuming them.
Years back, health officers in Sapele, Delta State, apprehended some ponmo sellers for injecting chemicals used in the embalmment of corpses into the cowhide to make them look attractive to buyers.
The traders, who confessed to the act, disclosed that, after injecting the substance into the hides, they would then soak the cow skin in water to achieve the bloated, fleshy appearance.
Although the particular type of embalming fluid used was not disclosed, toxicologists said that ingesting any substance used for embalming corpse has grave consequences.
Abolanle Kayode, a biochemist at the Department of Chemical Sciences, Bells University of Technology, Otta, Ogun State, said the danger in eating anything laced with embalming fluid or any other dangerous chemical was very grave.
He said though there are many types of embalming fluids, formalin, which is the most common one, poses health hazard when it comes in contact with food, and consumption of food contaminated with formalin can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, unconsciousness, or even death.
Formaldehyde’s effect on pregnancy and the reproductive system, he said, has been studied in both humans and in laboratory animals, adding that the chemical has been shown to decrease fertility and increase the risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) in humans.
“In laboratory animals, formaldehyde can harm the developing foetus and damage sperm,” he warned.
Embalmment of corpses, the biochemist explained, involves disinfection and preservation using chemical substances, which include formalin, among others. The embalming fluid consists of a group of chemicals that include preservatives, germicides, buffers, wetting agents, anticoagulants, dyes, and perfuming agents, among others, in various proportions to produce the embalming fluid.
Formaldehyde is the commonest preservative used for embalming, and anatomists, technicians in histology and embalming laboratories, as well as medical students during their dissection course, are all exposed to formaldehyde, “which in many situations crosses the threshold for irritation of eyes and upper respiratory tract.”
The biochemist warned that formaldehyde could cause allergic reactions of the skin and the lungs (asthma) and is also a known cause of cancer in humans.
“The eyes, nose, and throat are irritated by formaldehyde vapours. This exposure can cause red, teary, burning eyes, sneezing, coughing and sore throat. Liquid formaldehyde solutions contacting the eyes can damage the cornea, possibly causing blindness.
“In higher concentration, it can severely irritate the lungs, causing chest pain and shortness of breath. Repeated exposure to formaldehyde can cause allergic asthma. Formaldehyde solutions can destroy the skin’s natural protective oils, causing dryness, flaking, cracking, and dermatitis (skin rashes). Skin contact can also cause an allergic reaction like redness, itching, hives and blisters. At least, one in 20 workers who are regularly exposed to formaldehyde would develop an allergic skin reaction. Formaldehyde exposure can cause cancer of the nose and sinuses in humans, as well as some types of leukaemia and lymphoma.”
Uchenna, a restaurant operator in Ikeja, said she was unaware of the presence of poisonous cowhide in circulation as well as the practice of using preservatives. She noted that aside from getting her supplies from a credible source, most customers could not eat without adding the delicacy to their regular meal.
“Even if you tell them that it is dangerous to eat ponmo, they would just laugh at you. Most people can’t afford meat. Moreover, without ponmo in my Afang and other vegetable soups, it is bad business,” she said.
Moshood Adeoye, a construction worker in Ikeja, opined that embalming fluids or poison would not stop him from eating ponmo, as it is cheaper for him, easy to chew and it digests quickly.