By Ngozi Nwoke
Years after the proposed plan by the federal government to ban the consumption of cow skin, popularly known as ponmo, it is being sold in the markets and savoured by people till date.
In July 2019, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) warned Nigerians to be careful when buying and consuming cow skin.
The then NAFDAC boss, Moji Adeyeye, said their investigations revealed that “unscrupulous businessmen and traders are now diverting animal hides meant for industrial use into the food chain for consumption.”
Adeyeye said that investigations further revealed that some companies illegally imported hides from countries such as Lebanon and Turkey.
Consequently, the Nigerian government, through the Nigerian Institute of Leather and Science Technology (NILEST), Zaria, also disclosed its proposed plan to proscribe the consumption of animal skin.
Prof. Muhammad Yakubu, director-general of NILEST, stated that the ban would help improve the country’s dormant leather sector, adding that consuming animal skin, which has little nutritional value, should be discontinued to save the industry and help the country’s economy grow.
He said: “To the best of my knowledge, Nigerians are the only people in the world that overvalue cow skin as food; after all, ponmo has no nutritional value. At a point, there was a motion before the two chambers of the National Assembly; it was debated, but I don’t know how the matter was thrown away. If we get our tanneries, our footwear and leather production working well in Nigeria, people will hardly get ponmo to buy and eat.’’
The DG disclosed that the institution, in partnership with industry stakeholders, would contact the National Assembly and state governments to propose laws prohibiting the consumption of cow skin.
Ponmo is a popular protein in Nigerian delicacies prepared in many homes, restaurants, social events such as weddings, funerals and birthday parties where it is used alternatively to or together with beef, fish and chicken.
Interestingly, despite warnings by health experts and the call to ban ponmo by government agencies due to how it is processed with dangerous items such as tyres, plastics, engine oil, which have been linked to cancer and other deadly health conditions, there is still an insatiable demand for it, with numerous people consuming it with much pleasure.
As the saying goes, “there won’t be a buyer without a seller,” investigations have shown that the huge demand for ponmo by both sellers and buyers is the major driving force behind the impossibility to ban it in Nigerian markets.
An interaction with the sellers, buyers and consumers of ponmo showed that it is the most affordable, accessible and always available ‘meat’ source.
Miss Vivian Eric, who runs a ‘Mama-Put’ restaurant on the Ogunlana Street, Lagos State, says ponmo is the most desired protein by her customers.
“Among all my protein sources, my customers prefer ponmo, shaki, roundabout and floater more than meat. They finish quickly before others,” she said.
Deyemi Adenuga, who was met savouring a plate of rice and ponmo in a buka, said he prefered ponmo because it is the most affordable protein.
He said: “Ponmo is very affordable and available. When going home, I buy ponmo of N400 for my wife and it serves us for a meal. It is cheaper than red meat, chicken, goat meat and fish. People think that ponmo is meant for the poor who cannot afford others like goat meat, but it doesn’t matter because even the rich like to eat ponmo.”
Asked why he thinks ponmo should not be completely banned despite the health dangers is possess, he replied: “This is not the first time we have heard that government wants to ban ponmo. But it has never been possible and it cannot be possible to ban it entirely because that is the only protein that the poorest person can afford.”
Abike, who sold ponmo for a living in Oyingbo, Lagos, said she loved her trade because of its enormous gains and the availability of buyers who patronized her regularly.
“I have been in this ponmo business for four years. It has expanded into two branches. My daughter manages the other shop in the market. Ponmo is something that people like to buy every day. You see this basin of ponmo, it will finish before 4pm today. I don’t have to struggle to get buyers. Sometimes, my customers even wait for me to arrive. I make sure they are well cleaned and washed to make them attractive to buyers. That is why it will be hard to stop people from buying it.”
A buyer, Tina Ade, was asked about the health dangers of consuming cow hide and she replied: “My children like ponmo a lot because it is very soft. It has no bone, so it’s easy for them to chew it without stress. I have heard about the health damage it can cause but I have neve heard that someone died from eating it. And if it was that dangerous to the health, why has the government not banned it since?”
However, it would be entirely wrong to dispose the fact that ponmo is loved by a large number of consumers who consume it with the aim of avoiding red meat or as an affordable alternative.
The reporter visited an abattoir in Ifako-Agege, Lagos, where a butcher, Taiwo Akindele, was seen roasting a large quantity of ponmo with used tyres, plastic bottles and blackish engine oil to fuel the fire.
Akindele narrated the process of preparing the skin as meat, making it sound healthy and safe to consume. He said: “After removing the skin of the cow, we roast the skin with firewood and kerosene. Afterwards we scrape the skins and wash them clean for supply to the market. We used to roast them with tyres and plastic bottles until we were cautioned by the state health regulatory board when they came on inspection.”
Mr. Lawal Arogundade, a lecturer at the Department of Economics, Lagos State University (LASU), said: “The continous consumption of cow skin should give concern to the government and to us as a people, especially on how much the tanning and leather industry is losing in the country. The cow hides are meant to be put into good use to manufacture quality leather shoes, bags and wallets, rather they are being preserved for human consumption, while Nigeria is losing out of the $75 billion global leather industry and still imports leather.”
The lecturer explained that all hands must be on deck in the public and private sectors to foster progress in the leather industry so the cowhides and skins are judiciously used for leather products, particularly to supply the domestic, regional and international markets, rather than for human consumption.
Mrs Elizabeth Okon, a nutritionist in Lagos, said that ponmo only appeals to the taste buds when properly prepared and has no nutritional value.
According to her, “It is baffling how most Nigerians love ponmo so much that they believe a good day’s meal is incomplete without it. When you attend social events, be sure to see ponmo served in almost all the foods. It is well garnished and looks appetising to an irresistible point. But the truth is that ponmo contains little or no nutritional value.”
She recommended the consumption of chicken, turkey, goat meat and fish rather than ponmo.
She said: “Instead of consuming something that has no nutritional benefit, the best recommendation for consumption are white meat such as chicken, especially chicken breasts, fish, goat meat and turkey. We have always advised patients to eat healthy. We should try not to be carried away by how appetising ponmo looks, but we must be concerned about how it is processed. If only people know how these cowhides are processed, I think that will help them make better choices. It’s shocking to see people eat it despite the warnings.”
Ojo Oluwafemi, a Lagos-based medical doctor, also raised concerns over the health conditions of some of the animals that must have been killed due to certain illnesses. He noted that some of them could be undergoing treatment and rearers do not care about the health dangers the chemicals could have on consumers, but go ahead to kill them for sale.
“Some of these cows suffer from ailments and, because of these ailments, they are usually given injections, which contain chemicals. The cow rearers don’t allow these injections to complete the duration of treatment, they just go ahead to kill the animals while the injection is still active.
“So, at this stage, if people consume the cow skin, chances are that they are consuming the chemicals from the injection directly because the skin part of the animal retains most of the harmful substances. Now, people assume that the process of roasting the cow skin in the fire has killed all the harmful substances and made it safe for consumption, but that is false, which is why they say ignorance is a deadly disease. What you don’t know is mightier than you.”
Another medic said: “The process of preparation cannot be relied upon. You cannot guarantee the accuracy of the hygiene in those places. You cannot guarantee the cleanliness of the water used in those places and you cannot guarantee how safe it is in the human body. They shouldn’t be consumed at all. Before the ponmo was brought to the market, a lot of different unhygienic substances such as plastic bottles, rubber tyres and so on are used in roasting them and these substances emit harmful chemicals.”
Mrs. Abike Bolarinwa, a professor at the Faculty of Management Sciences, Lagos State University, stressed the need for the government to create an enabling environment for the leather industry to thrive in order to reduce the consumption of cow skin, which has proven to be harmful to consumers. She added that economic growth and employment were guaranteed, if the leather industry were well developed and regulated: “This is the part where the support and assistance of the federal government is required to expand and enhance.
“An enabling environment for the tanning and leather industry to operate without hitches should be created. There are potential benefits from this sector. Firstly, we look at the reduced consumption of cow skin. People will no longer consume it largely. Secondly, lots of health issues will be averted or reduced as people will not have cancer-related diseases due to the consumption of the cow skin. Thirdly, job creation and economic growth will increase.”
Mr Adeniyi Ayoola, a chemical engineer in Lagos, explained that harmful chemicals from the tyres, plastics and other items used to roast cow skin are causes of kidney and liver diseases, amongst others.
“Ponmo should not be eaten at all. Some of the animal hides have skin diseases. The process of treating them is linked with chemicals generally stored in the tissues of the animals that will eventually end up in humans when consumed resulting in kidney and liver diseases.
“A chemical called formaldehyde is a highly toxic and poisonous chemical that is deadly if absorbed by inhalation. It can cause severe respiratory tract and skin irritation, including dizziness or suffocation. Some ponmo processors preserve their ponmo in formalin to make it thick and increase in size so that it attracts more buyers. This chemical is very dangerous and can drastically damage the kidney and liver when it begins to accumulate in the body.
“When roasting cow skin, things such as tires and plastics and others, are used to keep the fire burning. Those things activates polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which exposes a person to a great risk of cancer. It is those harmful objects that cause abnormal growth of cells in the body, which is called cancer.”
“There is a disease called colorectal, which is one of the most popular diseases that many people are suffering from. It has been researched that there is a link between the consumption of cow skin and increased level of colon disease and cancer. All these diseases are mainly due to the method of preparation.”
Reacting to this, chairman, Ponmo Dealers Association, Mushin Market, Lagos, Mr. Yakub Matanmi, said that it would be a tough task for government to ban the consumption of cow skin as it is the source of livelihood for many people such as butchers, cleaners and sellers.
He said: “I don’t think the government can stop the consumption of ponmo, so many things will go wrong. It is from this business the sellers, cleaners and butchers get to make a living and send our children to school.
“But if eventually the product is banned totally by the government, there is really nothing we can do about it, but that will definitely be the end of our business.”