The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development says Nigerians consume about 360,000 tonnes of beef yearly. This conservative figure is projected to rise to 1.3 million tonnes per year by 2050, some 260 per cent increase. But how safe is the meat we eat?
By Kolawole Talabi
In 2008 while he was still a Veterinary Medicine undergraduate, Okan Hembel bought a cow hump at the local market in Jalingo, Taraba State. He took this prized cut home in the hope of preparing a delicious meat dish for dinner. Instead of ending in the pot, the whole hump was thrown away.
“When I got home, I sliced the meat and I saw a deposit of antibiotics inside,” Hembel recalled. “There is a particular antibiotic drug which veterinary doctors administer to animals. It is whitish in colour. It’s called PenStrep, a combination of Penicillin and Streptomycin. Either of these two antibiotics was responsible for that deposit,” he explained.
Antibiotics are used for controlling the growth and spread of harmful germs both in humans and animals. In addition to preventing diseases, they are widely used by the poultry farmers to enhance growth rates, boost egg production as well as increase feed efficiency.
It normally takes about eight weeks to raise table birds such as broilers, but with the use of antibiotics, table birds can reach the market in six weeks or less. For any entrepreneurial farmer, the lesser time it takes to raise these birds, the better.
Thus, using antibiotics is a big incentive for profit. The use of antibiotics is, however, not peculiar to poultry farmers; cattle herders use them too.
While antibiotics are quite beneficial for raising disease-free animals in record time, they can be hazardous when meat from animals that have high levels of antibiotics is consumed.
To prevent this from happening, farmers are mandated by regulators to adhere strictly to the withdrawal period (printed on the pack) of veterinary drugs before selling their animals.
The withdrawal period is the timeframe between the last dose of antibiotics given to animals and the consumption of such animals or food derived from them such as milk or eggs. Hence the withdrawal period allows the animal’s system to rid itself of the residue of these veterinary drugs.
Although some farmers, especially smallholders, do not observe these instructions, this is not the biggest challenge in the use of antibiotics. It is the improper application of antibiotics that can cause the greatest danger.
Whenever farmers misuse antibiotics — either by using less than is recommended (for cost-cutting measures) or more — it can cause germs to develop genes that resist the effect of these drugs. When this happens, the drugs become ineffective at killing germs which, in turn, results in antibiotics resistance in humans.
“It has been discovered that there’s transference of resistant genes from animal to human microbiota,” Adebisi Agboola, an animal scientist at the University of Ibadan said.
“Humans are the consumers of these animal products [and] with the residual effects of antibiotics, when people take antibiotics for common infections, it doesn’t work. That becomes a problem and because of that, the European Union (EU) has banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals since 2006. The health risk of using antibiotics [in animals] is very high,” he explained.
Agboola disclosed that while Nigeria is yet to ban the use of antibiotics in animal production, there is a gradual move by professional institutions to induce farmers to embrace alternatives like prebiotics and probiotics.
One of such institutions is the Nigerian Institute for Animal Science (NIAS), which is coming up with a range of policies and regulations that will ensure that farmers comply with best practices in animal husbandry.
Due to prevailing environmental conditions such as high humidity and poor sanitation in Nigeria, which predispose animals to germs, eliminating the use of antibiotics may not be possible.
Hembel’s experience, therefore, underlines why food safety should attract greater government attention. This is particularly worrisome because as the economic profile of the country rises, the meat consumption per capita of Nigerians will also increase. In fact, it might have started rising.
A 2009/2010 nationwide survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) that was published in 2012 put the expenses on red meat (such as beef and mutton) at 2.95% of the total food expenditure for the average household. In comparison, Nigerians spent about 0.58% of their food expenses on poultry and its products (mainly eggs).
These figures show that Nigerians eat more red meat than the white variety. The availability and affordability of beef over chicken, and to a lesser extent, certain cultural and religious practices are the factors responsible for this preference. (Beef is the preferred meat choice for special occasions such as weddings and funerals while mutton is oftentimes reserved for Muslim festivities.)
But, beside the use of antibiotics, the rearing, sale and slaughter of cattle are also processes that throw up challenges that could also pose health hazards to people who consume beef.
Juli Mohammado rears cows for sale across Nigeria. At his base in Tambuwal in Sokoto State, he sells about 150 cows every Monday to abattoirs and markets as far as Lagos. Mohammado’s herd appeared very healthy. They are fed with wheat, beans shaft and grasses. He, however, said the cows sometimes suffer from foot and mouth disease, a viral disease that is common in cattle. To prevent his cows from becoming ill, Mohammado vaccinates them against infectious diseases from time to time.
“I have doctors from the veterinary [clinic] who come to treat the cows when they are sick. Most of the treatments are through injections,” he said.
A visit to an abattoir in Tambuwal revealed that cows and other animals are usually slaughtered on the ground and their carcasses are then transferred onto a wooden mat made of small bamboo shoots. One of the butchers at the abattoir, Abubakar Maidamma, told our reporter that between three to five cows are daily slaughtered at the abattoir and that if it is discovered that a cow is sick, it is immediately slaughtered.
When asked if the abattoir has a veterinarian who checks the cows before slaughter, he answered in the negative. So, the cause of sickness is not determined before the animal is slaughtered, a situation that raised question about how safe the meat would be for human consumption.
At the Sokoto Modern Abattoir, the facilities are not necessarily top-tier, but they are a clear improvement upon what is available in Tambuwal. Concrete pits and wooden sheds covered with roofing sheets provided some semblance of normalcy at the abattoir.
Nevertheless, the conditions are still quite dismal. Suraju Muritala works as a veterinary inspector at the abattoir. His team of vet doctors check the animals to ensure that zoonotic diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis are not allowed to spread.
During inspection, the animals are also quarantined for 24 hours before they are slaughtered. “We conduct two types of inspection,” Muritala said. “The ante-mortal inspection is done before slaughtering the animal and the post-mortal inspection after slaughtering. The inspection generally includes the examination of the animal’s respiration, the eye and the mouth to determine if there is a discharge or not,” he further stated.
But as it is for beef, so it is for poultry. Arike Ajumobi, who runs a small poultry farm in the Elebu area of Ibadan, Oyo State, breeds quails, turkeys and chickens for sale, especially during festive seasons, such as Christmas and Easter. She patronizes different milling factories in Ibadan where a mix of maize, barley, wheat bran, soya and other additives such as lysine and methionine are prepared as feed for her birds. In addition to the regular vaccinations which she gives her birds, she admits that some drugs are also included in the feed (to prevent caking and the growth of fungi). She showed a list of some of the drugs she gives the birds.
“Some of the antibiotics we used in the past are no longer as effective as they once were,” Ajumobi said. “It seems the chickens have become resistant to the old drugs. We now have to use different types of antibiotics to ensure that they don’t die,” she said.
Ajumobi has a bit of education, something which makes her understand the health risks associated with misusing antibiotics. She, however, said without antibiotics, most of her birds would definitely die of diseases. So how does she strike a balance?
“I always observe the withdrawal period printed on the pack of the antibiotics I use for my chickens. I don’t sell my chickens until they are fit for human consumption,” she explained.
Commercial poultry farmers such as Zartech already use an efficient value chain that supplies frozen chicken to consumers, but smallholders like Ajumobi have no such system to rely on. It is, therefore, easier for Zartech to recall its products if contamination is detected. On the other hand, consumers of the meat products from smallholder farmers will find it very difficult to trace where such products come from.
Despite the significance of meat as a source of dietary protein for consumers and a means of income for producers, the supply chain of beef and poultry in Nigeria is still a poorly regulated sector.
The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is the principal government body with the responsibility for articulating national policy on animal husbandry. The ministry performs this role through its various departments and agencies. However, the absence of effective coordination between government institutions and key stakeholders has created huge gaps between policy and practice in Nigeria’s meat industry.
First, the ministry does not yet possess a comprehensive registry for Nigerian farmers across the 36 states and the FCT, a situation that makes an engagement with farmers difficult because of paucity of information about who they are, what they do and where they work. The situation implies that the ministry has no meaningful relationship with farmers’ cooperatives and groups such as the Poultry Association of Nigeria and the Miyyeti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria to create a database for livestock farmers.
Such a database would allow the government to monitor and regulate the industry effectively.
Furthermore, there is very limited collaboration between professional bodies and institutional regulators such Nigeria Institute of Animal Science, Veterinary Council of Nigeria, the National Food and Drug Administration and Control to create a benchmark of standards for the meat industry.
The results from the laboratory test of the meat samples collected in Sokoto and Lagos showed that there are antibiotic residues in the meat, but the residues are quite below WHO recommended levels.
For instance, the safety limits of Enroflaxcin, one of the commonly used antibiotics in Nigeria, is 50mg/kg. In the meat (beef) samples obtained from Sokoto, the High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) test results found the average concentration of Enroflaxcin to be 13.31mg/kg. Although the level of Enroflaxcin detected in the meat (beef) samples from Lagos was a bit higher at 16.14mg/kg, it is still under the WHO safety limits.
Gentamycin was also detected in the beef and chicken samples (both from Lagos) tested. The average results found the residue of this antibiotic in chicken samples to be 38.37mg/kg while that of the beef samples was 34.51mg/kg. Hence the concentration of Gentamycin was slightly higher by a value of 3.86mg/kg in chicken than in beef. Nonetheless, the scientific community still assures consumers that due to the low fat content in white meat, it is a better source of animal protein than red meat.
“We really can’t escape the fact that [the] meat we eat will contain residues of these antibiotics,” Achiaka Irabor, a family medicine practitioner at the University College Hospital in Ibadan, noted. “Still, white meat is healthier because it has less fat in it.”
Today, Hembel is a practising veterinary doctor with the Ministry of Animal Health and Fisheries in Sokoto State. He wants the government to regulate the sale of veterinary drugs by ensuring that only people with signed prescriptions from a clinic are allowed to buy antibiotics. He is convinced that such a move will prevent a recurrence of his experience with the contaminated hump he bought at the market.