On October 4, 2016, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), through its spokesman, Wale Adeniyi, warned the citizenry to be on red alert, as intelligence report indicated that some die-hard rice smugglers have begun shipment of plastic rice to Africa from China in what was clearly a selfish move aimed at swelling their profits, regardless of the consequences of their poisonous imports. He likened the food fraudsters to fake drug dealers who do not mind poisoning an entire community as long as they make huge profits from their unwholesome trade.
Though the warning about the food crime sounded like a wild joke, it was important because Nigeria remains the highest consumer of parboiled rice in the West African sub-region. This means there was a possibility that the bulk of the cancerous shipment would be emptied in the country through scores of unmanned borders from where smugglers invade the markets with their man-made rice.
The NCS warning, however, confirms a recent report by Natural News and Korean Times that alerted that China was mass producing plastic rice for huge profit, pretending it was not aware of the grave health challenges.
According to the publications, the plastic rice is made using a mixture of sweet potatoes and synthetic resin (plastic). These ingredients are mixed together and formed into “grains” which very closely resemble natural grains of rice. The rice substitute is then sprayed with a fragrance to mimic the smell of Wuchang rice (a more expensive brand in high demand), making it difficult to decipher between the two brands. The man-made rice looks just the same as the real deal in terms of shape and size; however, the plastic remains hard after cooking, a development nutritionists say is dangerous to the human body. The wuchang rice also looks like some basmati brands from the Indian sub-continent.
It is a well-known fact that some companies use chemicals in their foods, but China’s synthetic rice, according to reports, is fraudulently taking the danger to a whole new level, according to a concerned Nigeria, who prefers to be anonymous.
“It is thought that China has been producing this fake “Wuchang rice” for at least four years. One Chinese official warned that eating three bowls of this man-made rice would be equivalent to ingesting one plastic bag”, the report stated.
Findings show that China, having enjoyed patronage in Asia, have shipped the inorganic rice into various African nations, especially Nigeria, where consumers rarely query products without verifiable nutritional data.
More so, as the yuletide season peaks, with millions of Nigerians warming up for various celebrations, foreign rice consumption triples and the Customs says smugglers would latch on that window to flood rice hubs in Daleko, Lagos, Onitsha in Anambra, Aba in Abia, Abuja and other major markets with contaminated rice which they had stored poorly for ages awaiting sales opportunities presented by the Christmas and New Year festivities.
While many Nigerians underrate the audacity of smugglers who could stop at nothing to eke out a livelihood, findings show the Customs intelligence has began to crystallise as some people are beginning to see tiny pieces of rice-shaped plastics delicately mixed with the real white basmati or Wuchang rice consumed mainly by the higher income earners in the country.
A 50kg parboiled rice sells for N22,000 on the average but for the adulterated wuchang rice, it is more than double of the stated amount.
The price disparity made the staple food an attractive commodity to the smugglers such that they could adulterate the basmati brand and make huge profit from its sales. Though no seizures on plastic rice have been recorded by either Customs or NAFDAC, Nigerians have been told to be cautious when buying the staple food, especially those on packaged as ‘basmati’.
Daily Sun’s investigations reveal that lately, some rice dealers in Lagos have started receiving queries from worried customers on their shocking discovery of floating pieces of plastics whenever they wash their lovely ‘basmati’ rice prior to cooking.
A housewife in Ajao Estate in Lagos, Toyin Oseni, in a telephone interview with Daily Sun lamented: “I bought basmati rice from the market. But when I opened it and took some to wash before cooking, a good portion of it floated, while some sank. I thought some portion of the rice was bad as in, perhaps, attacked by weevils, so I emptied the entire pillow pack of rice into a big tray, but there were no weevils. I looked closely and discovered the floating grains were mere plastics.
They wouldn’t soak in water or soften. I was scared and I told my neighbours my awful experience and warned them to be careful. I went to my rice dealer and she feigned ignorance; insisting she got the supplies from her usual supplier”, Oseni stated.
Her account was similar to that of Ruth Martins, living in Egbeda, a suburb of Lagos, who insisted she was going to the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to lodge an official complaint on what she experienced with plastic rice mixed with the basmati brand.
How to defeat plastic rice
So, how do Nigerians detect the plastic and poisonous rice to avoid ignorant consumption? The Acting Director General of NAFDAC, Mrs Yetunde Oni, told Daily Sun, on the sidelines of a recent stakeholders meeting that good quality rice will be crispy not slippery and not have foul smell.
“However, rice becomes regulated by NAFDAG when it is processed and packaged but the good thing about rice is that from the appearance you can tell whether this is of the right quality or not. Feel the texture. Rice should be dry and not dampened. It shouldn’t have pungent or foul smell”, she said.
“We have also ensured that right from the onset, NAFDAG is a part of the farming. When you’re part of the farming, you teach the farmers how to apply the pesticides; you teach them what to do at every particular point in time such that at the end of the day, you end up with the right product not that we are waiting at the end to look at the quality of the products”, she said.
But according to the Korean Times, there are several ways to differentiate the plastic rice from the real one.
“Stir a tablespoon or two of the rice into a glass of water and observe. Authentic rice is more dense, and will sink to the bottom of the glass. Rice formulated with plastic will float. Number two, cook a small portion of the rice and place it into a container; leave it to rest on the counter. If after a few days, mold has not begun to form (as it should on actual rice) you know you have a plastic imposter.
“Thirdly, be observant while boiling your rice. If a thick layer of residue is formed at the top of the water during this process – you may have reason for concern. Number four, strike a match. When a flame is put to fake rice, the “rice” will emit a plastic or even sweet potato smell. Yes, it will burn as you would imagine plastic would. So, for peace of mind – light it up. In reality, the container of rice in your pantry is most likely safe – but stories such as this are in fact real, eye-opening, and good reminders of why it’s so very important to inform consumers”, the report added.
Aside the plastic rice debacle, the Rice Processor Association of Nigeria (RIPAN) in a recent petition to President Buhari signed by its Chairman Abubakar Mohammed, raised the alarm that smugglers plan to ship in over one million tons of foreign rice within the yuletide in what could be described as their last push to make huge gains because they fear the Federal Government may heed the advice of the Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali, who is strongly pushing for the total ban on foreign rice importation by 2017.
His calculation is that the country may likely bridge the rice sufficiency gap next year judging by the aggressive and audacious rice farming in various states under the Central Bank’s Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme. About 13 states have come onboard and already cultivated thousands of hectares of rice; while N23 billion has so far been disbursed to them.
The Customs chief, at a recent stakeholders’ meeting in Abuja revealed that 99 per cent of the imported rice was poisonous and gave of plethora of reasons to support his claim.
“First, the smugglers go for expired rice overseas, especially from China. The Chinese won’t eat that in their country so our people go and get them re-bagged and ferry them here.
Secondly, the bags of rice are preserved with dangerous chemicals and reagents and when the goods arrive in neighbouring ports of Cotonou and Lome, they warehouse them poorly in dirty, dilapidated and disused facilities with leaking roofs and poor ventilation as they await the best time to move into Nigeria with their illegal consignment. On the sea, rickety boats are used for transporting the rice and sea splashes on the consignment. The land borders have many routes to enter various states.
At this point, they smuggle the engine in vehicle trunks, ambulances, tyres, door levers, bumpers. Our men can’t be everywhere. But, we impound thousands of bags of rice but they won’t stop smuggling. We also know some bad eggs within us connive with them and give them the green light on when to come in. They can wait for months because they know the staple food will always be sold because Nigeria has a huge population and local farmers cannot buoy the rice demand yet.
“So, as the rice stays in such poor condition, humidity and dust will force it to grow moulds and yet when the smugglers know the coast is clear, they still flood the markets with this unwholesome rice. Today, you’ll notice even young Nigerians developing cancer and other terminal ailments. It could be from consuming these contaminated rice, frozen poultry and all that. Rice smugglers know importing via the seaports is commercially unattractive, so they smuggle them through land borders. But we’re pushing for total ban of imported rice. Our brand is even healthier. We can grow our rice and meet our demands; rather than allowing the commodity come in by sea. Total ban is it”, he stated.
At a recent stakeholders’ meeting in Abuja, the Presidential Committee on Trade Malpractices, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Kebbi State government and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in unison vowed to check the massive smuggling of expired and poisonous rice into Nigeria via various land borders.
The Chairman, Presidential Committee on Trade Malpractices, Dahiru Ado Kurawa, said at the forum that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration was determined to end the importation of rice as the country has the capacity to cultivate rice to meet local demand.
He lamented that Nigeria remains the highest importer of rice in the world, stressing that the continuous importation of the staple food via seaports not only puts heavy pressure on the nation’s foreign exchange but retards the momentum of Nigerians farmers who are working hard to meet local production.
“600 million metric tons of rice is cultivated worldwide. Nigeria imports 3 million metric tons and of the 600m metric tons, only 40 million metric tons is traded internationally across borders. Meaning most countries cultivate and consume. We can also work hard and meet local demand”, he said.