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Need For NAFDAC’s Vigilance In Detecting Covid-19 Infected Food Products 

By Isaac Asabor
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In August this year, the news was agog that traces of Covid-19 were found in imported frozen food products from China. As reported, Chinese authorities said the virus was found in imported shipments of frozen food, one of which came from Brazil.

As gathered, traces of Covid-19 were found in shipments of imported frozen food in two Chinese cities. Explanatorily put, a shipment of frozen chicken wings, imported from Brazil into the southern city of Shenzen, tested positive for the virus when it was sampled. It was reported in some sections of the global media that Shenzhen authorities identified the chicken as originating from a plant owned by Aurora, Brazil’s third-largest poultry and pork exporter. At the time the news was broken, China has not formally notified Brazilian authorities about the alleged Covid-19 that was found on the frozen wings.

However, in response to the threatening development, the Brazilian poultry sector and authorities responded to the allegations by stating that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that Covid-19 could be transmitted through food, and that this would be even less likely after 45 days of transportation. The local authorities did point out the source of the shipment, but did not offer detailed information on the scope of the contamination. It was uncertain whether it was the packaging or the wings themselves that were contaminated.

However, despite the fact given in response to the development by experts, facts emanated sometime in November 2020 that new COVID-19 controls in China could put frozen food consumers at risk. Though the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) say that the risk of catching COVID-19 from frozen food is low, China has repeatedly sounded alarms after detecting the virus on product packaging.

In a similar vein, Reuters reports that China has detected the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on packaging for German pork knuckles and Ecuadorian shrimp. On the strength of the detections, China imposed import bans as a result, disrupting trade flows.

As part of more drastic measures used to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, China tightened restrictions requiring "full coverage" testing and disinfection of imported food products, following a smattering of positive samples detected on beef, pork and seafood.

The development, no doubt, compelled the country to suspend imports of 99 suppliers from 20 countries as revealed by the National Health Commission on Thursday 12 November.

Beijing argued that such measures were needed to prevent the import of the virus, which has been largely contained domestically. A seafood market in the central city of Wuhan was widely believed to be the origin of the pandemic that emerged late last year and has now killed millions of people across the world.

Worrisomely, Yuanyang County in central China’s Henan Province has on December 13, 2020 found that an imported frozen food packaging sample tested positive for the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19.

The sample was taken from the packaging of a batch of imported frozen shrimp from South America, local authorities in Yuanyang reported Sunday, December 13.

As of Monday morning, local authorities conducted nucleic acid tests on 22 relevant people, including those, who had direct contact with the food.

Authorities have also sealed the shipment of frozen food from which the tainted sample was taken and disinfected the storage facility.

The tainted sample in Yuanyang County was from the same shipment of imported frozen shrimp where COVID-19 had been found days ago in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital.

Against the foregoing backdrop, and regardless of the fact that the scientific evidence that Covid-19 could be transmitted through food is still hazy and under debate, it is expedient to urge the National Agency For Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to live up to its expectation by virtue of its constitutional mandate to take all steps in ensuring that food manufactured, imported, exported, distributed, sold, advertised and used in Nigeria meet the highest standard of Food Safety reasonably achievable; with any hint of being infected by COVID-19.

Be that as it may, it is germane to recall at this juncture that as part of the moves to permanently flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, that health experts in September 2020 cautioned Nigerians on the consumption of imported frozen foods for now.

The warning was given on the heels of a circular issued by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), recently, on a planned importation or smuggling in of frozen chicken from China and Ecuador.

In the memo dated September 9, 2020, and signed by the acting deputy comptroller in charge of enforcement, I.T Magaji, and addressed to all zonal coordinators, Area comptrollers and Border drill coordinators, it was revealed that the Chinese government had detected coronavirus in imported food products.

Accordingly, the Comptroller General of Customs (CGC), Col Hameed Ali, warned all commands and zones to intensify anti-smuggling activities towards ensuring that the frozen chicken is not smuggled into the country.

The statement read: “Intelligence reports reaching Headquarters reveals that during routine screening of meat and seafood, Chinese authorities detected coronavirus in a sample of frozen Chicken wings and shrimps from Brazil and Ecuador.

“You are reminded that importation of live or dead birds including, frozen poultry; HS Code 0105: 100-0105.99. 0106.31.00.00010639.00.00, 0207:26.00.00 and 0210:99.00.00 through land borders, airports, and seaports are absolutely prohibited.

“Consequently, the CGC has directed all commands and zones to intensify anti-smuggling activities towards ensuring that the frozen chickens are not illegally smuggled into the country through the land borders, airports and seaports,” the statement added.

The former Chairman, Lagos State Chapter of Nigeria Veterinary Medical Association (NVMA), Dr. Alao Mobolaji, said for goods coming in by sea, which often take a minimum of two weeks, there might be no cause for alarm for external packaging.

He, however, said for food packages coming by air transport, which take only a few days, some precautionary measures can be put in place to disinfect them.

“From available scientific findings, it is yet to be established that the virus can be contracted from food or frozen foods. It is also known that the virus does not multiply in food or food animals, for now, the virus multiplies only in humans, and transmission is mainly by human-to-human contact.

“Since the virus does not multiply on food or animal frozen foods, the possibility of human infection from frozen food does not arise. The virus is known to survive for between three to seven days on plastic, steel, glass, and wood, one to four days on paper, tissue paper, and carton.

“However, the coronavirus family has shown survival of up to two years at sub-freezing temperatures. The same is yet to be established of the COVID 19 virus, but there is a possibility since they belong to the same family,” he said.

Alao advised Nigerians that for this period, they should patronise more of locally produced frozen foods, “and if they don’t have other options but the imported ones, they should pay careful attention to washing these products thoroughly and cook sufficiently before consuming.

“This pandemic can be averted if we stick to the prevention and management procedures as laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO), if we follow religiously the safety protocols of our local centres for disease management, and most importantly not throw caution to the wind too early. Nigerians like we can already see are already going about their daily businesses, giving little or no importance to the seriousness of this pandemic crisis. Like we have been cautioned, the worst is really not over yet.”

Chairman of the NVMA in the state, Dr. Olufemi Aroso, also warned Nigerians to desist from consuming the foreign frozen foods. “We should get down to production and produce more for local consumption and probably exportation. We should buy locally produced frozen chickens and turkeys, as they are usually safer, fresher, and better.

“There is no evidence to date of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.

“If there are looming health crisis, it probably has to do with the unhealthy preservatives that some use in preserving this frozen stuff and their health hazard on man, but not COVID-19 as a health problem.

“It is highly unlikely that people can contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and the primary transmission route is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Even though there are some claims of such, it does not look logical and true.”

However, weighing on the strength of the speculations that covid-19 has been linked to food products, it is incumbent on NAFDAC to proactively remain vigilant in detecting Covid-19 Infected food products. The agency, no doubt, can meet the expectations of consumers in this context by synergizing with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) which has the mandate to lead the preparedness, detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks and public health emergencies in the country.

It is expedient to say that NAFDAC is equal to the task as the challenge could be addressed through public enlightenment, better coordination of roles along the food value and food supply chain, capacity building, improved infrastructure, training from the farm to the processing or preparation levels, adequately equipping the producers and regulators to perform their functions better through training and retraining in addition to providing the necessary working tools.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Isaac Asabor and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."