By Owei Lakemfa
I BOUGHT two products of the Coca Cola conglomerate three days ago. They are bottles of Fanta and Sprite. I looked for a warning on them which should read that the drinks are poisonous when taken with Vitamin C.
This would be in accordance with the March 2017 judgment of the Lagos High Court which found the products unfit for human consumption as they contain high levels of sunset yellow and benzoic acid which according to European and American drug agencies, can form the carcinogen benzene when combined with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). The court had ordered Coca Cola to comply not later than June, 2017.
But I did not see such warning. I did not expect to see the warning because as expected, Coca Cola would be hiding behind technicalities and a claim that it is appealing the judgment. However, if it were interested in the health of Nigerians and not just profits, the company by now, would have saturated us with adverts warning of the dangers of taking their products as ordered by the court.
In a matter affecting lives such as this, the company should comply with the judgment even if it seeks a reversal in the higher court. This is basically because while it can recoup losses, it cannot bring back lives that might be lost as a result of its non-compliance.
Given its angry reaction, I am not sure Coca Cola will obey the judgment. Rather, I expect it to assemble an armada of Senior Advocates of Nigeria to appeal the pro-life judgment and sink it with nuclear weapons. A lot will depend on whether the appellate courts will stand firm and deliver justice like Justice Adedayo Oyebanji did, or, take cover under a mountain of technicalities to shoot down the judgment. If the courts were to upheld the judgment, It is unlikely a transnational corporation like Coca Cola, given its contemptuous defence in court, would willingly comply.
Yet there is need for haste as the revelation that these products are unfit for human consumption had been made one decade ago. Who knows how many Nigerians have ignorantly continued to take these products with something as common and popular as vitamin C? How many have been exposed to the health risks or have developed health complications taking these drinks?
The revelations about Fanta and Sprite began in March 2007 when the United Kingdom confiscated and destroyed large quantities of the products imported by Nigerian businessman, Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi Adebo. Tests carried out on the products by the Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council’s Trading Standard, Department of Environment and Economy Directorate and corroborated by the other European agencies showed they could be dangerous.
But Coca Cola while accepting that it produced the destroyed items argued that they were produced for distribution and consumption in Nigeria alone and not for export. So the export was illegal as the UK has its own different Coca Cola franchise.
The company arrogantly and contemptuously argued that the levels of chemical components which are dangerous by European standards, are safe for Nigerians. An obviously miffed, Justice Oyebanji said: “It is imperative to state that the knowledge of the Nigeria Bottling Company (producers of Coca Cola in Nigeria) that the products were to be exported is immaterial to its being fit for human consumption…soft drinks manufactured by the Nigeria Bottling Company ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of colour or creed.”
In agreeing with the learned judge, does it not make commonsense that as a transnational corporation, if Coca Cola is changing its formula, it should do so for all countries and not give underdeveloped countries a formula that can be carcinogenic or injurious? Why would it use an outdated formula in Africa and an updated one in Europe?
Since Coca Cola has declined to warn Nigerians about its products as it obviously puts profit above all other considerations, the National Agency For Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, which is a government agency has no excuse not to have commenced a mass enlightenment on the harmful effects of Fanta and Sprite. It is tragic that NAFDAC which is publicly funded to protect Nigerians, was unable to put up a defence in court for its certification of the products.
The courageous Justice Oyebanji in her well- considered judgment had declared that: “It is manifest that NAFDAC has been grossly irresponsible in its regulatory duties to the consumers of Fanta and Sprite manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company.
In my respective view, NAFDAC has failed the citizens of this great nation by its certification as satisfactory for human consumption products, which in the United Kingdom failed sample test for human consumption, and which become poisonous in the presence of Ascorbic Acid ordinarily known as Vitamin C, which can be freely taken by the unsuspecting public with the company’s Fanta or Sprite “.
Justice Oyebanji was very clear and unambiguous in her judgment when she ruled further that: “The court, in the light of the damning evidence before it showing that NAFDAC has failed to live up to expectation, cannot close its eyes to the grievous implication of allowing the status quo to continue as it is.
For the reasons herein adumbrated in this judgment, the court hereby orders as follows: That NAFDAC shall forthwith mandate Nigeria Bottling Company to, within 90 days hereof, include on all the bottles of Fanta and Sprite soft drinks manufactured by the company, a written warning that the content of the said bottles of Fanta and Sprite soft drinks cannot be taken with Vitamin C as same becomes poisonous if taken with Vitamin C.”
If this judgment were delivered in countries where the health of the citizenry, and public office is taken serious, the Director General of NAFDAC would have publicly apologised and resigned. But in this case, even after the judgment, NAFDAC is still making a case for Coca Cola and justifying its sale of the products.
There is also the Consumer Protection Council, CPC, another public agency which should have moved speedily to begin mass public enlightenment. Rather, it takes shelter behind claims that it is ‘investigating” the matter. How long will it investigate? The CPC has not told the country it has the laboratories to conduct research into Fanta and Sprite. In any case what investigation does it require when all it needs to do is get copies of the scientific evidence produced in court and act in the higher interests of consumers.
The wellbeing of Nigerians is in our hands, we have a duty to protect our lives and those of our children. If we will do it, we can make companies, no matter how powerful to comply with international standards especially on food, drinks and drugs.