The grim news from Asia last week left many consumers all around the world sputtering on their favourite noodles. Lab tests conducted on a particular brand of the snappy meal (special chicken flavour) revealed presence of ethylene oxide a cancer-causing agent. Faster than a roadside vendor bursting an egg or two on a steaming pan of noodles, Taiwan and Malaysia not only recalled the batches already on supermarket shelves, they stopped production of the noodles as well. As one of the largest consumers in the world, the regulatory body in Nigeria NAFDAC ordered similar tests on the noodles, making consumers wait with breathless anticipation as THEWILL found out. Michael Jimoh reports…
Every morning without fail from Monday to Friday, Mama Messi readies her three-year-old son named after Argentine football legend Lionel Messi for school the same way most mothers do. A scrub down and then dress up. All the while, there’s water a-boiling in a pot, a pack or two of a brand of Indomie noodles already open to be dumped in.
Minutes later as Mama Messi squeezes snort from her adorable son’s nostrils, the meal is cooked. Stuffed with the egg-rich noodles, some portions ladled in his lunch pack tucked in a bag slung across his shoulders hiker-style, mother and son set out for school a glancing distance away from home at Opeilu where they reside near Egbado market in Ogun state.
“It saves time and gas,” Mama Messi told THEWILL of her preference for the snappy meal that has become a staple in many Nigerian kitchens – rich or poor and those in-between.
The 39-year-old mother has a bar she tends at a Tee-junction. She has to go to the market sometimes, too, to replenish her stock. So, having a meal ready for the school-going Messi in the shortest possible time is best for her. She tried cooking rice once as an alternative to the noodles. Messi turned it down flat and cried all the way to school that morning. Plus the washing, parboiling and cooking for at least 15 minutes, rice was out of it for her. On that particular day, mother and son got to school late. It has been noodles since then and Messi is yumming it all up.
Also gobbling up the instant noodles every morning before school are two sibs, Onyiye, 12, and Kamsichukwu, 8. Shortly before resumption early in May, their mother, Mrs. Comfort Uche bought four cartons of Indomie Instant Noodles – each carton contains 20 packs. With two large packs for Onyiye and Kamsichukwu for breakfast, their mother reckons it will take them far into the term before buying some more.
“It is cheap and easy to prepare,” Mrs. Uche told the newspaper. Besides, the condiments and spices are there in the pack. “I don’t have to go to the market to buy tomatoes, salt and pepper, onions or vegetable oil before cooking.”
Mrs. Uche could have been speaking the minds of millions of mothers across Nigeria. Ever since Indomie noodles found its way into the cooking pots in Nigerian kitchens in the 1990s, it has remained there and even gained traction, a quickie meal that can be eaten at any time – as breakfast, lunch or dinner depending on the preparation and garnishing.
Although statistics are yet unavailable about the culinary preference of school-going youngsters like Messi, Uche and Kamsichukwu, it is reasonable to assume that more than 70 percent of school kids in Nigeria slurp their noodles during lunch breaks and, maybe, after school. Garnished to diners taste with spices and fish, chicken or meatballs, noodles is a meal you eat on the go, a readymade meal for a generation in a hurry. Preparing it – max time required from pot to stomach is five minutes – saves the pub owner time. His son loves it and everyone is happy.
You could say there are thousands of mothers like Mama Messi and Mrs. Uche who never fail to stock their ward’s school bags with the reedy consumable every morning. But in the wake of the recent disclosure by the health authorities of Taiwan and Malaysia that there may be ethylene oxide in the chicken flavoured brand, some Nigerian mothers have stopped feeding their kids with their favourite morning dish.
Mama Messi told the newspaper mid-week she stopped buying the Chicken flavour type for her son. Now, she buys another brand of noodles entirely and not Indomie anymore.
Noodles with attitude
The Indomie brand of noodles made a big splash with consumers when it first appeared in 1972 via an Indonesian tycoon Sudono Salim founder and owner of Bogasari Flour Mills. Different variants appeared in the market initially which Indonesian housewives loved for the same reasons as generations of Nigerian mothers will decades later. It was the dry variant Indomie Mi Goreng served without soup which made a bigger splash.
Recognised worldwide as a quickie meal, it is no surprise the various brands of Indomie have won some awards, among them Lausanne Index Prize (L.I.P.), Indonesia Best Brand Award (IBBA), the Most Effective Ad award, the Indonesia Consumer Satisfaction Award (ICSA), and the Indonesia Best Packaging Award.
But it has not been thumbs-up for the noodles however. On October 7 2010, reports from the Taipei County Public Health Bureau said it found traces of sodium benzoate and methyl p-hydroxybenzoate cosmetic preservatives in Indomie noodle products. They immediately “ordered all vendors to withdraw the product from the market.”
Faster than a rifle shot, the parent company of Indomie Indo Foods countered the findings of the Taipei Health Bureau on October 11. “The company believes that the recent reports in the Taiwanese media arose concerning instant noodle products manufactured by ICBP that were not intended for the Taiwanese market.” With that clarification from the management of Indo Foods, the Taiwanese authorities on May 6 2011 “allowed the instant noodle products to re-enter Taiwan market.”
To the northwest across the East China Sea from Taiwan, Hong Kong health authorities also banned the consumption of Indomie products, prompting two leading supermarket chains to withdraw the instant noodles from their shelves. But the company importing the noodles to Hong Kong, Fok Hing (HK) Trading, insisted the noodles were not only safe to consume but that they “meet standards in Hong Kong and the World Health Organization, based on the results of quality tests which found no hazardous materials.”
At the time, the Minister of Health in Indonesia Dr. Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih also insisted the noodles were safe for consumption but “still advised the public to reduce the consumption of instant noodles.”
By the way, the name Indomie is a combo of Indonesia (Indo) from where the noodles originated and (mie) which means noodles in the Indonesian language. From the first reports of health risk to consumers then, Indomie has become a world brand, filling up Hungry Jacks in no time everywhere from Bali to Berlin, Lagos to Los Angeles, Moscow to Muscat, Riyadh to Rio de Janeiro. And such is the popularity of the stringy edible with gourmands worldwide that some people now see it as a world brand like the fizzy stuff Coke.
Indomie Chicken Flavour was riding the crest of its popularity in the world, swirling around in the digestive system of millions of school kids like Messi, Uche and Kamsichukwu when another scandal threatened to bring down its hard won fame.
On May 1, Taiwanese and Malaysian health authorities once again found ethylene oxide in the chicken flavour brand of Indomie. Ethylene oxide is a cancer-causing agent. Both countries quickly raised the alarm and the health risk it posed to millions of consumers around the world. Like the first in 2010, Taiwan and Malaysia culled batches of the product from the market and stopped producing them. Lab technicians in both countries are hard at work now to determine whether or not the popular noodles contain the killer chemical.
Of course, in this age of information technology when news literally travels faster than the speed of light, Nigerians and the rest of the world got to know of it pretty quickly. For one, Nigeria is reckoned to be one of the largest consumers of Indomie noodles, thus raising the bar of fear in millions of consumer’s consciousness.
The road to NAFDAC
For good reason, the regulatory body was the first point of call by concerned citizens and reporters. They wanted to know if that particular brand was safe for consumption and what was the agency doing to assure Nigerians that all was well concerning the recent findings by the Asian countries.
In a THISDAY publication headlined “Indomie Noodle: Conflicting News, Half-Truths and NAFDAC’s Clarifications,” Raheem Akingbolu pretty much captured the situation: the panic, discussions online by Nigerians and NAFDAC’s response.
“Consumers of the leading noodles brand Indomie were thrown off balance at the weekend as the social media community was inundated with the news that the popular brand had been banned in Nigeria,” Akingbolu began. “Perhaps because of the sudden surge of citizen journalism with little or no time for verification, this side of the story gained tremendous traction.
“With the headline: ‘NAFDAC bans Indomie Noodles’, some bloggers and social media enthusiasts activated their handles on Sunday through Monday morning. By the evening of Monday May 1, the news was everywhere that Indomie had been banned. For a market leader like Indomie, it became an issue management as many consumers became confused.”
On her part, NAFDAC DG, Professor Mojisola Adeyeye quickly put aside fears by Nigerians about the Asian noodles. First of all, Nigeria has since banned that particular variant of Indomie, Adeyeye stated, insisting that “importation of Noodles into the country has been banned for a very long period and such ban has not been lifted, so consumers have no cause for alarm.”
Prof Adeyeye pointedly noted that “Instant noodles has been on the importation prohibition list of the Federal Government for many years. This variant or flavour is not registered by the agency, nor is it produced locally here.”
Despite that reassurance, the DG went on to say that the agency will commence random testing of the noodle in question. “On May 2, 2023, NAFDAC’s food safety and applied nutrition directorate will randomly sample Indomie noodles (including the seasoning) from the production facilities while the post-marketing surveillance directorate (will) samples from the markets. The compound of interest is ethylene oxide, so the director of food lab services directorate has been engaged. He is working on the methodology for the analysis.”
Good enough from the DG. Still, Nigerians are worried about the DG’s clarification on the matter. One, if that particular brand has been on the prohibition list, why even bother carrying out random laboratory tests on other brands? Two, what would have been the position of NAFDAC if the Asian countries didn’t sound the alarm about the cancer-causing agent?
Mr. Tope Ashiwaju is the Group Corporate Communications and event manager, Dufil Prima Foods Plc, the Nigerian parent company producing Indomie. Like Prof Adeyeye, he let on that “Indomie Nigeria is a different and separate entity from Indomie Taiwan and Indomie Malaysia.”
It is “locally produced in the country and operations have been ongoing for at least three decades.” Nigeria, he went on, “is a major consumer of instant noodles with the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA) placing the country as one of the largest consumers of instant noodles worldwide.
The ban on the importation of instant noodles is not a recent development as instant noodles have been on the import prohibition list for years and we have not gone against this.”
For now, what reporters now call the noodle nightmare is still unfolding. The Taiwanese and Malaysian governments have sent men in lab coats working round the clock to solve the mystery of ethylene oxide in the Special Chicken Flavour of Indomie.
Here in Nigeria, Adeyeye has told consumers to fear not.
“NAFDAC, as a responsible and responsive regulator, is taking swift actions to carry out random sampling and analysis of Indomie noodles (including the seasoning) for the presence of ethylene oxide, as well as extending the investigation to other brands of instant noodles offered for sale to Nigerians. We use this medium to assure the public that a thorough investigation of the products will be conducted both at the factory and market levels and our findings will be communicated,” she said.
That is what millions of Nigerian consumers of the affected Indomie variant are waiting for: results of the tests because ingestible substances like food should help and not kill us or make us prone to a raft of diseases after consuming them. BSE was thought to cause some odd behaviour in those who ate an infected bovine. Severe and Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) found in Asian birds sometime back created a scare so real most countries banned importation of the birds at once.
Will the Special Chicken Flavour of Indomie follow the same route as BSE and SARS? Time will tell.