Lagosians eating diseased cows –Investigation


The way meat is processed at the multibillion naira abattoir in Lagos may render its consumption dangerous to health as BOSEDE OLUSOLA-OBASA reveals in this report
The Lagos State Government has always claimed that beef sourced from state-accredited abattoirs are safe for food.  However, findings from SATURDAY PUNCH investigation have shown that this claim might not be totally true.
Findings from successive visits to the state’s largest abattoir by our correspondent over a period of three months showed that Lagosians consuming beef may be at risk of zoonotic infections.These are deadly diseases transmissible from animals to man through consumption.

Investigations at the Oko-Oba Abattoir and Lairage, Lagos, the state’s biggest abattoir, revealed a chain of daily routine that promotes unhealthy and unethical practices that medical practitioners fear could portend risk of diseases to members of the public.
Over 200 diseased cows are killed daily
Our correspodent observed that at least, 20 out of every 100 cows slaughtered at the abattoir were distressed, bruised and unable to walk.
At least, 200 of such cows are slaughtered everyday out of the over 1,200 cows killed at the abattoir for food daily.
Often appearing to be in a coma, the cows were wheeled on wooden stretchers into the slaughter slab area from the cattle market located within the same complex.
Despite the fact that the state government has banned the slaughtering of diseased cows, Saturday PUNCH observed that the practice continued with impunity in the glare of vet doctors and other task force teams on duty, who looked the other way.
Acting like an interested buyer, our correspondent made a subtle inquiry from some cow dealers on why the cows appeared lifeless, they simply said that the animals were distressed having undertaken a long journey.
It was also discovered that the cows on stretchers cost lesser than the fit ones. Depending on the state of the animal and size, the price difference could be as high as N100,000. The dealers were usually eager to sell the sick animals in a bid to dispose of them before the worse happened.
 During the first visit by Saturday PUNCH, a cow was dead on arrival, but it could not be ascertained what was done with it. However, the rule at the abattoir is that such cows should be cut and burnt.
Mature cows at the abattoir cost between N100,000 and 250,000.
Those dealing in hide and skin take the unhealthy practice further as they usually drop the unprocessed bunch on the soil outside the abattoir, close to the lairage, while waiting to load them into designated meat vans.
Some medical and veterinary doctors who spoke with our correspondent said deadly health conditions such as leptospirosis, listeriasis, brucellosis, Q-fever, anthrax, cysticercosis, tuberculosis and infection with ebola and salmonellosis viruses, could result from contact with or consumption of contaminated and infected animals and products.
Although an inquiry at Merit Hospital in the Oko Oba area could not immediately establish if people in the area had presented symptoms of some of the diseases mentioned, medical doctors warned that many of the possible diseases might not be immediately diagnosed in Nigeria. They feared that the conditions could also be misdiagnosed to be other forms of ailments. Medical doctors and veterinarians  said that eating unwholesome meat and dairy products could silently further cut down on life expectancy of Nigerians, currently put at 50 years.
A medical doctor, Abidemi Shabi, said, “There are so many diseases that can be transmitted to man when sick cows are killed for consumption. Diseases could also result from contact with droppings and body secretions of infected animals, but largely from ingestion of the ‘sick’ animals’ meat.
“The most popular disease that can be transmitted to man by eating infected meat is mad cow disease, which presents in humans as Creudtfeldt Jakob disease.”
Shabi noted that all cattle to be slaughtered for food are supposed to be properly assessed by a qualified veterinary doctor for fitness as this will allow infected animals with dangerous transmissible infections to be removed from the pack, treated or destroyed.
A customer, Dayo Adesanya, who lives at the Oko Oba Millennium Estate close to the abattoir complained about the filth and stench from the daily activities at the complex.
He said he didn’t know that ailing or lifeless cows were being slaughtered there.
“If Lagos State Government wants to save the lives of residents by insisting on best practices, it won’t take time at all. It is important for the government to intervene now before it is too late,” he said.
A female respondent, who declined to give her name because she is an employee of the state, said she believed that almost all the butchers there were Muslims and knew the implication of serving a dead animal for food.
She said, “If they practise such, it is a surprise. There is however no gainsaying the fact that meat from the abattoir could be unsafe. You look at the slaughtering area.
“There is no restriction, no enforcement compelling anybody who enters the area to be kitted. Even the butchers have no aprons on. The slab is an all comers affair. This is very wrong and unhygienic.”
Preferring the slab to the slaughtering lines
Not minding their health peculiarities, the butchers slaughtered one cow after another on the concrete slab earlier stained with a mixture of dung and blood from other cows.
There was no adequate water to rinse the cows during dressing as gallons of water were bought at intervals from water vendors around the slab area and miserly used on the meat. Thereafter, the meat was packed in rusty, weather-beaten tricycles to the meat stall for public consumption.
Meanwhile, the large slab also served as unrestricted walkway for whosoever had business to do at the abattoir. Saturday PUNCH’s findings showed that these practices were capable of exposing meat to contamination by micro organisms.
Our correspondent learnt that in 1992, it cost the state N6bn to establish the Oko-Oba Abattoir and Lairage, which is reputed as the largest in sub-Saharan Africa and may account for beef meat consumed by more than 50 per cent of the 18 million residents of Lagos, according to Nigeria’s last population census .
A tour of the facility showed that it was originally built to operate mechanised slaughtering lines and not slabs. As practised the world over, slaughtering is no longer done on slabs largely for safe health reasons.
But Saturday PUNCH learnt that successive governments of Lagos State had failed in their bid to put the lines into full capacity use or make the butchers embrace the option.
Speaking on meat hygiene in abattoir, the President, Veterinary Council of Nigeria, Prof. Gabriel Ogundipe, said that all meat produced from slab slaughtering were contaminated.
He said that state governments must outlaw slaughtering on the floor in the interest of public health.
“The meat is conveyed in refrigerated meat vans after it has been contaminated. This cannot serve the hygiene purpose intended because the meat has already been contaminated by micro organisms before they are loaded into the van. The micro organisms will grow even more when it gets to the sellers, who usually expose the meat to all kinds of touch,” he said.
Ogundipe advised members of the public to cook their meat very well before eating to avoid health crisis. He said that it was the job of vet doctors and meat inspection officers to enforce the rules guiding safe meat production.
In her view, a nutritionist consultant, Stephanie Oboh, said Salmonella virus found in the intestines of cows could cause a deadly food-borne disease called Salmonellosis.
She said that the content in the cow’s intestines could contaminate the meat, thus causing diarrhoea.
She advised people to cook their meat very well before eating.
She said, “Ebola virus is another deadly virus that can cause severe viral haemorrhagic fever outbreaks in people. It could break out by contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals.
“That is what you find happening at the abattoir, the waste water from the other cowS flows freely to the one being slaughtered or dressed. For me, the best option is not to eat beef at all.”
However, our correspondent observed that inadequate number of vet doctors and meat inspection officers at the abattoir left little or no room for due diligence to be done before sick cow meat was passed on to innocent members of the public for food.
Vet doctors, meat inspectors: compromised or overwhelmed?
An official figure from managers of the abattoir put the number of cows slaughtered for public consumption at the abattoir on week days at 1,200, and increases at the weekends to about 1,500.
Saturday PUNCH observed that close to 100 butchers slaughtered cows simultaneously at the abattoir.
 Meanwhile, all through the period of this investigation, there were usually just about six vet doctors and inspectors on duty daily; this invariably makes due diligence a mirage.
Little wonder, the obviously overwhelmed officers, decked in their white overall dresses and boots, were usually observed only making intermittent returns to the massive slaughter slab from their office located close to the abattoir gate.
Cow slaughtering never stops from about 5.30 am to 3 pm, but once it is close to 1.30 pm, the vet doctors tidy up to close for the day’s work, leaving the butchers without any form of supervision.
Some petty traders within the abattoir complex however alleged that the action of the vet doctors was sometimes out of compromise or fear of insecurity because the butchers could be violent.
They alleged that some compromised vet doctors sometimes allowed the butchers to have their way in exchange for some pecuniary gains.
They alleged that this happened mostly when some organs were certified unfit but the traders tried to ask for a leeway by greasing the palms of the animal health workers to avoid losing their cows.
But apart from the allegation of compromise, they said vet doctors and meat inspectors were usually scared and very careful.
Many of them noted that the knife-wielding butchers were capable of hurting them as they had done in the past.
Saturday PUNCH gathered that this had been hindering proper meat inspection despite the presence of security operatives stationed at different points in the abattoir to maintain order.
“When you go to the area marked ‘Condemned organs area’, you will find some condemned organs, just to prove to the senior inspector that they have worked for the day.” said Titilayo Hassan, who sells wares close to the slab area.
However, all the vet doctors approached by our correspondent around the slab and the Project Officer, simply identified as Dr. Idris, declined to comment on the issue. They referred our correspondent to the commissioner in charge of the ministry in Alausa.
A trader,  Ignatius Addey, who has been selling wares at the abattoir for about 10 years said, “It is a very dangerous place to work and the vet doctors have to be careful. The butchers appear to be the lords here. They do what they please; they obey no rules until military force is applied.
“The memory of a vet whose finger was slashed because he dared to condemn a cow organ is still fresh. In this same abattoir, a woman was beheaded by a butcher. So you can’t blame them when they sometimes look away from some atrocities. They think in terms of public health but the cow dealers and butchers think in terms of their investment. And you see that they have completely taken over the complex in terms of population. We can’t afford a breakdown of order.”
Whither animal rights? Scores of pregnant cows killed daily
Just as cows in stretchers were killed for public consumption, our correspondent also observed that the killing of pregnant cows was regular practice.
Although it was learnt that these practices had been banned by the state government, scores of pregnant cows were still being slaughtered at the abattoir.
The foetuses are severed by another department of traders around the slab for sale to dog owners. This goes on unabated, just as the health officers feign ignorance of its effects.
On the issue of killing of pregnant cows at the abattoir, a veterinary technologist and animal rights activist, Kizito Nwogu, said it was wrong to slaughter pregnant cows. He described the act as losing the mother and the offspring. He said that the state government should enforce the ban on the practice.
He said, “It is a wrong practice and against the right of animals. There should be ultrasound test to know that a cow is pregnant, there should be no guess work. Once discovered, such animals should be left in the lairage. It is a culture of waste to kill the mother and the unborn. I learnt they sell them to people who keep dogs. It is very wrong. In the same vein, killing sick, debilitated cows for food is unsafe for human health. But we live in a complicated country.”
Abattoir managers react
In an interview with Saturday PUNCH, the Managing Director, Harmony Abattoir Management Services Limited, Mr. Olusegun Bello, said that the practice of killing  cows in trolley and pregnant cows had been banned by the state government because of its health and social consequences for members of the public.
He said that cow slaughtering on bare floor as being done at the abattoir was unhygienic, but regretted that government seemed to lack the political will to stop the unwholesome practices in the interest of the public.
He regretted that the backward orientation of the people who do business at the abattoir was a major impediment to achieving the desired change.
He said, “We took over the management of the abattoir about 10 years ago. Our mandate was to rehabilitate the mechanised slaughter lines, which has a capacity to slaughter 1,000 cows a day but currently we don’t do 100 in a month. Slaughtering on the slabs is not supposed to be part of the abattoir at all. It was introduced by the former management.
“There are approved slaughter slabs all over the state but of course, I must admit that slab slaughtering is not hygienic. Indeed, it is not. I can’t speak for the government because we are a full-fledged private company but I know that as a matter of policy, the state government does not support killing on the bare floor. But it appears to me that there is no political will to stop the practice.”
During a tour of the lines, Bello said that the company had so far spent about N63m to rehabilitate the slaughter lines. He said the lines were working, but had been deserted by the army of butchers, who insisted on the slabs.
He commended the state government for its good intention but called for urgent action to be taken on the state and operations at the abattoir. He said that about N473m had been proposed for a total rehabilitation of the complex.
 “We are only patronised by some individuals and some corporate bodies. The government once took stakeholders to Botswana to see the modern practice in meat processing. It was very neat and modern. They wanted the same replicated here, but we have been on it. There is also the Nairobi Declaration signed by all stakeholders some months ago,” he said.
He said that only the state government had the power to stem the security risks posed by the community of Hausa cattle traders and butchers, who preferred to live in the complex and hardly ever obeyed any directives.
He said, “There is the urgent need to reform the cattle market in the abattoir complex, while resettling the dealers, who currently sleep in the lairages. Studies have shown that there is an overlap in the operations of the cattle market and the abattoir.
“The government should enforce guidelines for butchers on cattle handling and hygiene in slaughtering areas and general sanitary condition of the place. The killing of pregnant and trolley cows have been banned and should be enforced.”
When asked if floor slaughtering had been outlawed, he said, “The people in government will be able to answer that.”
Unguided drug administration to cows harm human health
Speaking at a recent veterinary forum attended by our correspondent in Lagos, the Senior Special Assistant to the Lagos State Government on Agriculture and Cooperatives, Dr. Nureini Funsho, raised another line of health concern.
Referring to the cattle market as a flash point, he expressed concern that when the cows are sick, their minders, who knew close to nothing about vet operations, usually injected them with substances that could be harmful to human beings if meat from the cows was eaten.
He said that these traders defied the rules that required that injected cows should not be killed for food until after a specified number of days.
He said, “The rule is that any cow that is to be slaughtered must be healthy. In drug administration to animals, there is an amount of pills you give to an animal before it could be slaughtered for consumption, otherwise it will do harm to the kidney of the people eating it.
“But what you find is that an animal that has just been treated for one particular ailment or the other is taken to the slab for slaughter with pills still in its bowel, which eventually end up in people’s kidneys. Some of these pills are carcinogenic and have been banned.”
Lagos State Government responds
The state Commissioner for Agriculture and Cooperatives, Mr. Gbolahan Lawal, said that the state government had already started a reform that would take care of the challenges at the abattoir.
He said that his ministry was aware of some of the issues raised by Saturday PUNCH and was working on them.
He was however not sure that trolley cows and pregnant cows were still being killed.
He said, “We are going to investigate these issues. Actually, there is no way the butchers can determine which cow is pregnant or not and that is why we have veterinary doctors on the ground. There are usually up to five of them around with other inspection officers. Part of the reforms will be to have machines that can detect if a cow is pregnant.
“We don’t want a situation where people will be scared of coming to the abattoir. All the issues are being taken care of under our reform programme. It’s just that it may take a while for the results to show because these practices have been there for long.
“Many of the cows at the abattoir come from as far as Burkina Faso and are usually stressed by the time they arrive. We have, however  directed that no stressed cow should be killed until they have rested. Hopefully in February, there will be significant changes.”

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