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Food safety: multi-billion naira lab in jeopardy

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By Jimoh Babatunde

Nigeria was once bedevilled by the unpleasant rejection of her agricultural produce exports due largely to lack of evidence of certification by internationally accredited laboratories.

SON DG, Osita Aboloma

Some Nigerian exporters reportedly had to obtain certification of their exports from Ghana to ensure acceptance in Europe and America.

But with the development of the requisite capacity to test food and agricultural produce for international acceptance through the accreditation of the multi-billion naira worth, state-of-the-art testing laboratories by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), that has become a thing of the past.

At its laboratories located in Lekki, Lagos, SON performs physico-chemical and microbiological tests on food, which have accelerated prosecution of products counterfeiters.

With this, SON under the leadership of its Director-General, Mr Osita Aboloma, has been able to raise the bar in the campaign to rid the country of substandard products.

However, these achievements are now under threat following a simmering contest over the building housing the agency’s multi-billion naira laboratories in its office in Lekki, Lagos.

A sister agency, the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), is threatening to eject the SON from the Lekki office, despite a gentleman’s agreement of several years, bordering on mutual swap of officially allocated premises on the one hand, as well as the grievous harm this will do to the Federal Government’s products testing scheme managed by the SON.

The premises in question was allegedly being developed by the RMRDC about the time of the movement of the Federal Government seat to Abuja, but eventually left unused for about 18 years. It was, however, re-allocated to SON sometime in 2000 by the office of the Head of Service of the Federation, and the agency carried out a massive renovation of the entire structure to make it habitable.

SON had since year 2000 been responsible for its overall maintenance including the provision of electricity and water to a floor occupied by RMRDC.

Not only did it relocate its headquarters from the then Federal Secretariat Complex, Ikoyi to the Lekki Phase 1 building, it has invested so much in constructing three additional structures accommodating many of its laboratories including two internationally accredited food technology and chemical testing laboratories in furtherance of the Federal Government’s economic diversification agenda.

The Mycotoxin and Food fortificant laboratories are located in the premises while it also accommodates one of SON’s three state offices in Lagos State in view of the concentration of manufacturing and seaports in the state.

The fact that the SON is key to providing requisite standards and acceptable certifications for non-oil products towards self-sufficiency, exports and increased foreign exchange earnings, is not in question.

What is in question now, however, is why the RMRDC, which occupies only one of the five floors with less than 15 staff, as against SON’s over 400 staff and internationally accredited agencies carrying out the latter’s off-shore conformity assessment programmes for imported products worldwide, is bent on the ejection.

The menace of substandard products is a great threat to the security of the nation and the safety and well-being of its people.

Given the obvious, that the building has more utility value for the SON, which is championing the fight against substandard products, common sense should be allowed to prevail, especially when one recalls that the “Ship House” in Abuja as it is popularly called, was built by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) but is today occupied by the Federal Ministry of Defence.

Defence allowed national interest to prevail in the dealing between it and the NPA.

In the case between the SON and RMRDC, there are also indications that the earlier mentioned swap involved the latter taking over a building allocated to the former in Abuja in exchange for the one in Lekki, which made it keep mum all this while.

Should Nigeria throw this away on the altar of unfounded rivalry or whatever factors?

Will Nigeria’s economic interest be served positively if the RMRDC succeeds in ejecting SON from the premises in Lagos that accommodates its operational headquarters, internationally accredited laboratories and the international accredited firms (IAFs) operating its off-shore conformity assessment programme for imported products?

These and more are the many questions begging for  answers even as the agency hopes for quick intervention from higher quarters before more harm is done to the nation’s economy.

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