As millions of Nigerians began an extended Christmas holiday over the weekend, many nursed the fear of consuming fake rice, popularly called ‘plastic rice.’
There have been widespread concerns that unscrupulous rice traders and importers might have flooded homes and markets with plastic rice.
Rice, an extremely popular staple in Nigeria, is mostly commonly eaten during festive periods.
SUNDAY PUNCH correspondents who spoke to rice consumers and traders across the country report that these rumours, which have become pervasive, have also affected the sale and consumption of rice as the Yuletide approaches.
Some who claimed to have bought or eaten plastic rice spoke to our correspondents while other victims have been sharing their experiences on the social media.
A Togolese chef, Louis Jonas, who works for a family in the Jericho area of Ibadan said he purchased the product at Oritamerin market in Ibadan.
Jonas who spoke to one of our correspondents said, “Two of my employers’ children returned to Nigeria for the Christmas so I was told to buy food stuff for the festive period. I did not know anything about plastic rice at the time.
“I just bought a half bag of rice but when I cooked it, it did not soften. I kept pouring water and I had to inform my employer. She was aware of the plastic rice. She went with me to where I bought it and threatened to involve the police if the seller did not accept it back. That was how she got back her money.”
Others, who spoke with our correspondents, expressed concerns that the government had not sensitised the public on the dangers of plastic rice or addressed the issue in a wholesome manner.
Another consumer, Mrs. Rose Ajibade, said she thought the plastic rice news was a rumour until she fell victim. “I was coming back from work two weeks ago when I remembered that rice had finished at home. I bought some in the market and quickly put it on fire. My husband kept asking me why the food was not ready, I kept checking but the rice did not soften. I had to make another meal,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Federal Operations Unit, Ikeja, of the Nigeria Customs Service announced that it had intercepted 102 bags of plastic rice branded “Beat Tomato Rice.”
The Customs Area Controller, Mohammed Haruna, had told the News Agency of Nigeria on Tuesday in Lagos that officers of the unit intercepted the plastic rice in the Ikeja area on Monday, adding that a suspect was arrested in connection with the seizure.
Two days after the Customs’ disclosure, the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, tried to reassure Nigerians by dismissing the claim. Adewole, who spoke via his Twitter handle, said tests conducted by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control on the rice showed that there was no plastic content in them.
However, the minister, in a response to SUNDAY PUNCH enquiry on Friday, warned Nigerians to be very vigilant and report cases of any suspected plastic rice to the nearest police station.
He said, “The rice (seized by the customs) was tested (and) had no plastic component. Let Nigerians be watchful and report any suspiciously looking or funny tasting rice. Kindly report such products to law enforcement agencies.”
Some Lagos and Abuja residents who spoke with SUNDAY PUNCH dismissed the minister’s reassurances as insufficient. Others said government should have launched a public awareness programme to teach Nigerians how to differentiate between natural and plastic rice.
A nurse at a private hospital in the Ogba area of Lagos, Miss Peju Adekola, said, “It is possible for the major rice importers in the country to be speaking through the minister. I am not convinced. There should have been serious campaigns about the rice before it circulated in the market. I have seen plastic rice. I will continue to eat local rice for now.”
Some of the traders at the rice market in Saki, Oyo State, confirmed to SUNDAY PUNCH that there were indeed hundreds of bags of plastic rice that had been brought into the Nigerian markets by dealers through the land borders. Saki is a Nigerian border town that is close to the Republic of Benin.
One of the traders, Mrs. Ariyike Aiku, said an emergency meeting of the market traders was held when news of the presence of plastic rice was reported in the market.
She said that at the meeting, some members who knew how to identify the product, shared their knowledge with others in order to avoid buying the rice.
She said, “We called an emergency meeting where some of us confirmed the authenticity of the rice. They told us how to identify it. In the past two months, several trucks full of the (plastic) rice had been brought to the market but we resisted all attempts by the dealers to lure us into buying them.
“In an attempt to make us buy, the price was ridiculously reduced to less than N10,000 and that was when we realised that indeed, they were trying to sell bad product.”
At the Bodija International Market in Ibadan, a rice trader, Mrs. Oluwanike Abodunrin, also told our correspondent that some importers had tried to flood the market with plastic rice. She added that market leaders had resisted the influx and made it difficult for the importers to sell them.
Abodunrin said, “We are aware that there is plastic rice in circulation. I operate this shop with my husband after he was disengaged from work three years ago. He brings in rice from Lagos and Oke-Ogun area while I sell.
“A month ago, he was in Lagos to buy the product when he called that he was returning home because of the fear of the bad product. He said he was told to beware of plastic rice and because he could not identify it, he returned to Ibadan without any goods.
“We have since been sensitised by our market leaders and now we can identify the product. Some traders already have it in stock but they have called on the suppliers to come and pack them.”
In Ado Ekiti, capital of Ekiti State, residents and rice sellers who spoke with our correspondent expressed fears that the plastic rice might have been mixed with the normal brands.
A housewife, Mrs. Rose Fatoki, said, “My neighbour collected some rice as a gift two weeks ago and we discovered it was plastic rice. She cooked it for hours but it did not soften. She had to throw it away.”
SUNDAY PUNCH gathered that fears over plastic rice had seen residents embracing local rice, which has always been seen as a poor alternative, because of its concentration of stones.
A resident of Bauchi, Bauchi State capital, Elizabeth Cah, told one of our correspondents that she heard of plastic rice about two weeks ago and stopped buying imported rice as a result.
She said, “For me, I have stopped buying and consuming foreign rice. I am now going for the local rice because I know there is nothing like local plastic rice.
“I will prefer to battle with the sand and stones in the local rice than to put my life at risk by eating plastic in form of rice.”
Another resident of Bauchi metropolis, Samuel Itodo, said that he heard about plastic rice about two months ago.
He said, “I heard about plastic rice that is now in the market sometime in October and I am really worried about the development.”
Muzamilu Aminu, a rice dealer at Wunti Market, Bauchi lamented that rumours of plastic rice had affected his business badly.
“Some of my customers have been telling me about it. This has made me to lose many of my customers,” Aminu said.
In Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, rice sellers and consumers expressed concern that the circulation of plastic rice was causing great tension and anxiety in many homes.
SUNDAY PUNCH learnt that many residents of Ilorin and other major towns in the state have stopped buying imported rice because they were concerned about the likely effects of plastic rice on their health.
A rice seller in the popular Oja Oba market, Alhaji Tanko Suleiman said, “I have been selling rice for over 10 years, I have not heard of such. This plastic rice story has scared our customers from buying rice from us.”
Another trader at Ojo Ago, Alhaja Mulikat Yekin, said she was about to buy more product for the Christmas celebration when she heard of the plastic rice importation.
“I decided not to buy again when some of my customers, said they would not eat rice this Christmas, and that they would either go for noodles or eba to avoid eating plastic rice,” she said.
Residents of Lagos State who spoke with SUNDAY PUNCH correspondents also expressed concerns that plastic rice might have found its way into the Lagos market while neither the federal nor the state government had done nothing to sensitise them on how to identify plastic rice.
A lawyer, Mrs. Amope Adeoye said, “I have heard about the plastic rice and I think that relevant agencies are not creating enough awareness in the media, which is why some may be buying it. We need illustrations on what it looks like after being cooked.”
Expressing similar fear and anxiety, a creche operator in Ogudu, Mrs. Sharon Gbajumo, said, “It is being talked about everywhere even on TV and radio. That plastic rice is in the country is a fact now. It is real. The fear of buying rice in the market is real too. It is only God that can save us from this situation.”
The Dean, College of Agricultural Sciences, Landmark University, Omu-Aran in Kwara State, Prof. Charity Aremu, described the importation of plastic rice into the country as a dangerous development because of its negative implications on the health of the people.
She said, “It is even more worrisome this time that the country is going through recession and where many people do not have money to feed themselves, not to talk of procuring medical bill.
“Some of the poor people who may consume the rice may not have money to take care of their medical bills and so many may develop complications. It will not be surprising that some of them may even die.
“There are indications already that the product exists and is in the market. So those who imported the rice obviously do not mean well for the people of this country.”
Why we sent ‘plastic rice’ for analysis — NCS
The Nigeria Customs Service has explained that it sent the ‘plastic rice’ it seized for laboratory analysis because its officials strongly suspected the product to be adulterated.
The NCS spokesperson, Mr. Wale Adeniyi, said the labelling of the product as ‘plastic rice’ was not conclusive.
He said, “The rice was suspicious, so we sent it for analysis. If the professionals who know better now say it is safe to eat the rice, we will not argue with that position.”