Since the past four years, the quality of most goods in Nigeria has continued to decline as manufacturers and importers try to implore means of satisfying their customers while still making profits in the face of the trying economy and consumer’s low purchasing power.

Many of them reduced the size of their packs and contents while still maintaining the same price. It cuts across almost every consumer sector. In the biscuit industry, for instance, most biscuits like the popular coaster biscuit which had six pieces in its pack and sells for N10, reduced to three pieces while still selling for N10. Manufacturers reason that it is better to reduce the quantity and maintain the old price instead of increasing the price as any increase in price may drive off customers whose purchasing powers have actually dipped.

However, what is going on in the tomato paste industry is really worrisome. The National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control [NAFDAC] has always lamented about the poor quality of tomato paste imported into the country but now the quality of the imported paste and the locally manufactured brands has actually dropped further.

Anyone that cooks with tomato paste in Nigeria will attest to the increased colouring and bulking agents in tomato paste now. It’s so bad that when one cooks with them it colours any white meat or fish in the pot pink. I will not like to mention the brand names now but most popular tomato paste brands are guilty of this.

It is really worrisome because there is a limit to food colouring and modified corn starch that consumers are supposed to ingest. Tomato is one food product that virtually everyone in Nigeria consumes in large quantity. We cook most foods with tomato.

According to reports, Nigeria which is the 13th largest producer of fresh tomatoes in the world is also the largest importer of tomato paste in the world. We import an average of 150,000MT of tomato concentrate per annum which is valued at $170m. All these go to show you the premium placed on both fresh and tomato paste in Nigeria. If the paste has more of artificial colouring and bulking agents, you can then imagine the quantity of those two consumed by individuals.

According to a government official from food safety department of NAFDAC, importers and local tomato paste manufacturers are given guild lines of what is expected with their paste. In her office at Isolo Lagos, the government official whose name cannot be mentioned as she is not the official spokesperson of the agency explained that most tomato paste in the market, both locally made and imported ones, fall below NAFDAC standard.

“The minimum requirements specified by the CODEX Alimentarius standards and Nigeria industrial standards is that double tomato concentrate should have at least 28 per cent tomato content while triple concentrate has a minimum of 33 per cent natural tomato content with extra concentrate having at least 39 per cent tomato content,” clarified the food safety professional.

Continuing, she explained that certain amount of edible corn starch is expected to be part of the content with other ingredients but, unfortunately, “majority of our manufacturers and importers use more corn starch than the real tomato, exceed the colouring, sugar limit. That’s why you find some of the paste tasting sweet.”

On what the government regulatory agency is doing to address the ugly incident, she disclosed that “We cannot do this work alone. We need consumers like you to come out and report such brands. For now, our agency is hampered by lack of funds, however we shall not rest on our oars. We keep raiding the markets and the suspected companies.

“Consumer education is very essential in this matter. Some of the manufacturers claim to can 100 per cent tomato but I tell you, it is not true. The only way to be sure you are consuming tomato is only when you buy fresh tomato. One can also buy it fresh and cook and sieve for future use. Supposed canned tomato paste has just tiny bit of real tomato in it,” she concluded.

A word, they say, is enough for the wise. Let us invest in fresh foods. That is the only way to be sure of what we are eating.

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