Don Norman Obinna
The real reasons the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control on Tuesday night sealed completely the business outlet of a popular elite and confectionary company, Chocolat Royal, has emerged.
Apart from the importation, storage and use of fake, unregistered and expired/unwholesome food products to produce consumables for customers, we can authoritatively report that Chocolat Royal was sealed by NAFDAC on the discovery of six illegal 40ft cold rooms fully stocked with contaminated food products built on top of sewages (soak away pits) and in front of toilets.
Not only that majority of these food products discovered have expired since 2004, which is 11 years ago, with the most recent expiring in 2013, the most worrisome aspect of it all was the discovery to the consternation of NAFDAC officials that the management of Chocolat Royal had revalidated the expiring dates of almost all the food products, with 90 per cent of them were not even written in English language and therefore not registered.
While two of the illegal cold rooms built in front of toilets were discovered at the Chocolat Royal headquarters at 267A, Etim Iyang Crescent, another two were discovered and also sealed at 1, Karimu Kotun Street, the residence of the company’s Chairman, Amin Moussalli, both located in Victoria Island, Lagos.
Investigations revealed that Moussalli, the Chairman of AIM Consultants, with chains of media houses including Cool FM, Nigeria Info, Wazobia FM stations,as well as WEE television stations, who is now at large, travels abroad to source for companies whose food products have few months to expire.
NAFDAC officials said the Lebanese business mogul receives these products mostly for free or at a reduced price and also gets paid by the companies to evacuate the products, which ordinarily would have cost them colossal amount of money to dispose.
He then ships them in large quantities to Nigeria, which has alleged by NAFDAC has become his dumping ground for food toxic for close to two decades.
These products are then cleared at the wharf and offloaded inside the two cold rooms at his Karimu Kotun residence, Victoria Island, from where they are then transferred to Chocolat Royal headquarters and then used to prepare ice creams, chocolates, beverages and pastries for members of the public.
At the end of the double operations, which lasted for nine hours, imported fake, unregistered and expired food products worth over N1 billion stocked in these illegal cold rooms were evacuated in six Hilux vans and buses, which NAFDAC stormed the place with.
This remarkable feat by NAFDAC was as a result of a tip off from a journalist who for three years has investigated the activities of Chocolat Royal, a company reputable for playing host to top Nigerian and foreign echelons, including governors, legislators, managing directors, artistes and others for close to two decades.
When the officials of NAFDAC stormed Chocolat Royal at exactly 12:15pm on Tuesday with some team of mobile police officers, they were resisted vehemently from carrying out their duties by some senior staff of the confectionary company, allegedly led by the Director of Finance, Idowu Adebayo, and others who apparently were in the know of the plot by the company’s management.
Understanding the gravity of what was about to happen if eventually discovered, they denied NAFDAC officials access to the cold rooms and stores to forestall more discoveries after some large quantities of the expired food products were discovered in their freezers, kitchens and bars upstairs, requesting for search warrant from the officials, a ploy later discovered to be a strategy to enable them evacuate the cold rooms and stores.
The atmosphere was charged to the extent that the company’s bouncers were almost engaging the NAFDAC officials in a brawl, forcing the mobile police officers to apply force and made some arrests, which eventually made most of them to retreat.
But access to the cold rooms and stores was not granted.
However, a little drama ensued when the obstinate management of the eatery invited other mobile police officers, who were probably their accomplice, to the scene to scare NAFDAC officials who they felt were acting illegally out of their premises, but the Superintendent of Police who led the NAFDAC police team ordered them out.
On realizing that the operation was not illegal after they had put several calls across to some top shots in the society, the daughter of the Chairman, who also is the Deputy Group MD of AIM group, Tatiana Moussali Nouri, was left with no choice than to cooperate.
Nouri asked the staff to also cooperate, while she led the officials round the premises, opening stores and cold rooms, which they were able to evacuate as the melee was on, but the NAFDAC officials could not be deceived based on the information already in their possession.
In order to re-strategize, the NAFDAC officials took inventories of the expired products discovered inside the freezers, kitchen and some bars upstairs and urged the management to sign the papers, while every cold room in sight was sealed to prevent the management access for more evacuation.
Pretending to have concluded inspection, they asked the Chocolat Royal management to report to the NAFDAC office the next day and then stormed Moussalli’s Karimu Kotun residence where the first two 40ft secret illegal cold rooms filled with fake, unregistered and expired food products built on top of sewage were discovered.
On getting to the apartment, however, the foreign national security guards and other domestic staff unleashed dogs on the NAFDAC officials and refused to open the main gate leading to the building against all entreaties.
This however forced NAFDAC officials to put a call across to the Director of Investigation and Enforcement of the Agency, Kingsley Ejiofor, who immediately stormed the scene.
The arrival of Ejiofor spurred everyone to action as he immediately ordered the officials to break the gate and shoot the dogs if the security guards eventually refused to chain them.
When finally the gate was forced opened and the guards subdued, the cooks voluntarily opened the two cold rooms where the entire products in stock were discovered to have expired, many as far back as 2004, with maggots’ found in some.
At the end of the evacuation, two buses and two Hilux pick-up vans filled with the fake and expired products worth over N500 million, all imported, were evacuated from the Karimu Ikotun residence of Moussali alone.
On interrogation, the jittery cooks, who identified themselves as John Gbokasa and David from Benin Republic, confirmed to NAFDAC officials that the house belongs to Moussali and that the fake, unregistered and expired food products found inside the two cold rooms were for Chocolat Royal.
“I know that the products have expired. Some, 2004, 2006, 2009, but I am a cook and I take instruction from my boss,” David said.
“Anytime they need some products to prepare edibles at Chocolat Royal, they come here with van and mine is to give them key to take whatever they want and after they finish taking the items, they will return the key to me,” John added.
They however begged the NAFDAC officials not to arrest them but wait until their boss, Moussalli, who has allegedly absconded and is still at large, or the wife who they said was out of the country to return.
The NAFDAC officials, however, turned down their plea and arrested the two who during interrogation at the Apapa office of the Agency gave vital information to NAFDAC.
From there, the NAFDAC Director and the entire team stormed the Etim Iyang Crescent headquarters of Chocolat Royal at about 6:15pm for the second time with the aim to not only break the cold rooms but also arrest Tatiana and the staff who had earlier wilfully obstructed NAFDAC officials from performing their duty.
However, only Adebayo and one David had not taken to their heels as others, including Moussalli’s daughter had left.
NAFDAC officials, however, were able to inspect only two cold rooms as it was getting late already.
Except some few products purchased in local markets in Nigeria, all the imported products inside the cold rooms have expired.
The expired products, which filled two Hilux pick-up vans worth about N500 million, were also evacuated and the entire building sealed.
Reacting to the incident after the operation, Ejiofor said NAFDAC had in its custody six persons in connection with the incident, adding that they were arrested for intentionally obstructing NAFDAC officials while on official duty.
“The suspects will be interrogated, while the food products will be sampled and taken to the laboratory for analysis, where the labels and contents will be properly analysed and at the end of the day when the reports are out, that will determine the next line of action,” Ejiofor said.
The NAFDAC director, who commended the officers and the entire team for the successful operation despite the intimidation from the staff of the offending company, further said the food and confectionary outlet will continue to remain close to allow for proper investigation.
“They will be investigated by the Federal Taskforce on Fake and Counterfeit Drugs and Unwholesome Processed Foods, and at the end of investigation, files submitted will be reviewed and after evaluation, we would send them to our legal department and we will be advised on what to do by the legal and if we have enough facts, then we will now proceed for prosecution,” he added.
But in a twisted press statement meant to obfuscate the truth as well as deceive the members of the public, the management of Chocolat Royal on Wednesday presented the invasion of its premises by NAFDAC as a normal routine check, trivialising the development as nothing serious.
Not only did they deny ever using the expired products discovered to prepare consumables for their customers, but stated that the expired food products were discovered in their “cupboard”.
The statement also said the expired products found in Moussalli’s house were discovered in the house of one of the directors of the company.
“The items found were never used in preparing food or confectionaries. As corporate citizens, we will work with NAFDAC to ensure that these issues are promptly resolved and any breaches if any are remedied,” the statement reads in part.
Meanwhile the Director General of NAFDAC, Paul Orhii, who arrived Lagos from Abuja earlier on Wednesday after inspecting the fake and expired food products evacuated from Chocolat Royal on Thursday morning at NAFDAC enforcement office Apapa, said the matter will be thoroughly investigated and the people involved prosecuted if found culpable.
Orhii said: “As you can see, these products are not even registered. Not only are they not registered, they have expired, some in 2004 and they are not even written in English language, so they could not have been registered.
“Not only that, you also noticed that the case is not only that the products have expired, some about 11 years ago, but they attempted to revalidate them, which is also a serious offence.
“They were caught in the process of using these expired products. So after investigation we will begin the prosecution. Anybody can build a cold room anywhere provided the place is not prohibited, but in this case, I understand that there was a cold room on top of sewage; soak away pit. Of course you cannot use that kind of cold room to store stocks that you are going to use for the production of food for the members of the public, so that is an offence.”
Orhii said that Chocolat Royal sealed outlet will remain closed until investigation is concluded, adding that compliance with NAFDAC regulation must be ensured first before the issue of reopening of the outlet will be discussed, but not anytime soon.
He however thanked the journalist for his courage and the investigation, which led to the operation, urging the members of the public to provide NAFDAC with any useful information that could help them in their operation.
He noted that the Agency is making every effort to rid Nigeria of fake and substandard regulated products.
“We appreciate the role of the press in assisting us in our regulatory activities and we will ensure that all matters relating to fake and unregistered products are decisively dealt with and culprits brought to justice,” Orhii added.
Investigation carried out has shown that minimum of 5,000 Nigerians and foreign nationals patronise the three Chocolat Royal outlets at 267A Etim Iyang Crescent, Shoprite and Lekki.
A medical practitioner, Dr. Bassey Richard, who spoke to our correspondent on the telephone, when asked to give insight on the health implication of consuming expired food products, said consumption of fake and expired food products can cause food poisoning and very dangerous especially to pregnant women and infants.
Richard said: “Eating expired food products will likely lead to food poisoning. Food poisoning consists of diarrhea and vomiting that can last for weeks, lead to fever and in some extreme cases to death.
“When it has to do with foods prepared with fruits such as nuts, apples and grapes, growth known as mycotoxins can occur, which can cause itchiness, diarrhea, vomiting and dizziness. It is not advisable to eat expired food products,” he said.