Much ado about benzoic acid in soft drinks in Nigeria 1!

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A Lagos High Court in Igbosere recently ordered the National Agency For Food, Drug Administration and Control  to mandate the Nigerian Bottling Company PLC, manufacturers of Coke, Fanta and Sprite soft drinks, to include a written warning that the content of the bottles cannot be taken with Vitamin C.

In a judgement delivered by Justice Adedayo Oyebanji on Monday March 6th 2017, the court warned that taking the soft drinks with Vitamin C is poisonous.

The court also declared that NAFDAC has failed Nigerians especially by certificating that these soft drinks were satisfactory for human consumption, moreso as these  products  failed sample test for human consumption in the United Kingdom.

In UK, it was observed that the drinks were declared poisonous because of the presence of Ascorbic Acid ordinarily known as Vitamin C, which can be freely taken by unsuspecting members of the public with Fanta and Sprite.

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Owing to this, the court also awarded a cost of N2 million against NAFDAC.

The judgement of the court is said to be sequel to a suit filed by a Lagos businessman, Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi Adebo, and his company, Fijabi Adebo Holdings Limited, against NBC and NAFDAC.

The plaintiffs urged the court to declare that NBC was negligent and breached the duty of care owed to their valued customers and consumers in the production of contaminated Fanta and Sprite soft drinks with excessive “benzoic acid and sunset” addictive.

Fijabi also urged the court to direct NAFDAC to conduct and carry out routine laboratory tests of all the soft drinks and allied products of the company to ensure and guarantee the safety of the consumable products, produced from the Nigerian Bottling Company factory.

In an amended statement of claim filed before the court by a Lagos lawyer, Abiodun Onidare, on behalf of the claimants, he alleged that sometime in March 2007, Fijabi Adebo Holdings Company purchased from NBC large quantities of Coca-Cola, Fanta Orange, Sprite, Fanta Lemon, Fanta Pineapple and Soda Water for export to the United Kingdom for retail purposes and supply to their customers in the United Kingdom.

When the consignment of the soft drinks arrived in United Kingdom, fundamental health related matters were raised on the contents and composition of the Fanta and Sprite products by the United Kingdom Health Authorities, specifically the Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council’s Trading Standard Department of Environment and Economy Directorate.

The findings of the said United Kingdom were also corroborated by the Coca-Cola European Union and products were found to have excessive levels of “Sunset Yellow and Benzoic Acid “which are unsafe for human consumption.

Due to the irregularities and harmful content of the soft drinks which can cause cancer to the consumer, the claimants could not sell the Fanta and Sprite products resulting in appreciable losses, as they were certified unsuitable for consumption and were seized and destroyed by the United Kingdom health authorities.

The claimants alleged further that NAFDAC failed to carry out necessary tests to determine if the soft drinks were safe for human consumption.

The claimants averred that as a registered exporter with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council, they could lawfully export the products of Nigeria Bottling Company to any part of the world. Infact, Nigeria Bottling Company was aware that the products they purchased were meant for export.

Consequently, apart from other reliefs, the claimants demanded N15,119,619.37 as special damages and N1,622,000 being the money admittedly received from the claimants.

However, Nigeria Bottling Company, in its amended statement of defence filed before the court by Mr. T. O. Busari, admitted supplying the products but contended that the product manufactured by the company were meant for local distribution and consumption as the company does not manufacture its products for export, as Coca-Cola brand of soft drinks is manufactured and bottled by various Coca-Cola franchise holders in most countries of the world, including the United Kingdom.

The company denied that it was negligent in the manufacturing of its products as alleged, stressing that stringent quality control procedures were adopted in its production process to ensure that its products are safe for consumption of the final user.

The company denied that the damages alleged by the claimants was occasioned by its negligence or any fault from the company as the level of the chemical components in its soft drinks is safe for consumption in Nigeria.

Nigeria Bottling Company contended that the claimants claims are speculative, frivolous and vexatious and should be dismissed with substantial costs.

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In proving his case, Adebo testified for himself while being led in evidence by Mr Abiodun Onidare and tendered 12 exhibits, while the Sales Operation Manager, Micheal Nwosu China and the head of Central Laboratory, Abiodun Adeola Falana, both of Nigeria Bottling Company, testified on behalf of the company and also tendered 12 exhibit.

In her judgement, Justice Oyebanji said: “It is imperative to state that the knowledge of the Nigeria Bottling Company that the products were to be exported is immaterial to its being fit for human consumption. The court is in absolute agreement with the learned counsel for the claimants that soft drinks manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company ought to be fit for human consumption, irrespective of colour or creed.

“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.

“As earlier stated, the court is in absolute agreement with the learned counsel for the Claimants that consumable products ought to be fit for human consumption, irrespective of race, colour or creed.

“By its certification as satisfactory, Fanta and Sprite products manufactured by the Nigerian Bottling Company, without any written warning on the products that it cannot be taken with Vitamin C, NAFDAC would have by its grossly irresponsible and unacceptable action caused great harm to the health of the unsuspecting public.

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“The court, in the light of the damming evidence before it showing that NAFDAC has failed to live up to expectations, 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 judgement, the court hereby orders as follows:

“That NAFDAC shall forthwith mandate the Nigerian 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.

“In consideration of the fact that this case was filed in 2008 and that it has been in court for nine years, costs of N2 million is awarded against NAFDAC. Interest shall be paid on the costs awarded at the rate of 10% per annum until liquidation of the said sum.”

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