The Chairman/Chief Executive, Fijabi-Adebo Holdings Ltd and EFAD Ltd (UK), Dr Emmanuel Ayodele-Fijabi Adebo shares the travails of his company in exporting Fanta and Sprite drinks manufactured by the Nigerian Bottling Company to the UK in 2007 with Gbenga Adeniji.
Dr Fijabi had in 2007, bought about N12 million worth of Fanta and Sprite drinks from Coca Cola Ltd, and exported the same to the United Kingdom.
However, on reaching England, under Health and Safety regulations, the authorities tested the products and found them to contain poisonous levels of Benzoic Acid and Sunset addictive and therefore declared it inadequate for human consumption.
The whole export consignment was consequently destroyed. Dr Fijabi, therefore, sued Coca Cola for negligence, breach of duty of care to its customers, and loss of earnings.
Adeniji: What led to the destruction of two containers of Nigerian-made Fanta and Sprite drinks by the UK Customs which you exported to that country in 2007 to sell in your chains of shops in Manchester?
Fijabi: It was the London office of the Coca Cola European Union Group that raised the alarm that some fake Coca Cola products were brought into the UK from Nigeria. It was based on that report that the UK Customs and Excise with the cooperation of the Manchester Trading Standards impounded and destroyed my 2 x 40 feet containers loads of soft drinks.
The Fanta and Sprite drinks were destroyed acting on what they called their rights as customs that the products were injurious and unsafe for consumption. Of course, we have a licence to export being registered with the Export Promotion Council. The products that were exported were specified.
The Nigeria Customs Service and others were at the yard of Nigerian Bottling Company while the products were being loaded. I do not know what the NBC was talking about that we did not inform them that we were exporting the products. If we were not exporting the products, we would not have loaded them in containers in the presence of the customs on their premises. Were we taking the containers to Kano or Abeokuta?
Adeniji: The soft drinks were destroyed on the basis that they contained excess sunset yellow and benzoic acid classified as carcinogenic and unfit to be taken with vitamin C (ascorbic acid). How much loss did you incur at the time?
Fijabi: I did not know all that at the time. I had assumed that the products made in Nigeria should be of global standard. I had assumed that there was nothing wrong with any products produced in Nigeria. Even while I was a student in Europe, I had at various times bought Coca Cola products on Liverpool Street. It was not something strange. Of course, the products we took to the UK were not fake. They were produced by the NBC, under franchise from Coca Cola USA. The accusation of the Fanta and Sprite being substandard, due to excess benzoic acid and sunset yellow was new to us then.
The direct cost of the products for the two containers was about N14m. We still had a balance because we deposited about N16 million in January 2007. The product was over N12 million but we were charged N900, 000 for loading which was signed by the company’s general manager (operations).
The shipment was about 4,000 pounds and we also paid the duty in the UK. The total amount lost was over N22 million. We had some Coca Cola tins earlier but these particular containers contained Fanta and Sprite. These drinks were in specific demand by our customers in London. My wife was there in England and I came to Nigeria to buy them.
Adeniji: Was the NBC aware that you were taking the drinks to the UK considering its claims that it was unaware and you were not supposed to have done so for they were produced to be consumed locally and not for export?
Fijabi: We did not load the products in trucks, trailers or bags. We loaded them in containers, ready for shipment. It was loaded by them and sealed by customs. If customs seal a container on their premises, was it going to Kano or Abeokuta?
Now to answer your question specifically, did they have to know where I was taking the products to? If I buy garri in oyingbo, do I have to tell the seller where I am taking it to? Do I have to tell if I am taking it to Kano? They were supposed to produce what could be taken to and consumed in any part of the world. Were the products labelled ‘not for export?’ There was nothing like that and I assumed that I could export the drinks since my company has approval and licence to do so from the Nigerian Export Promotion Council.
Adeniji: Your company, Fijabi Adebo Holdings, sued the NBC after the incident and later joined the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control as a nominal party. Why did you do that?
Fijabi: When the Coca Cola European Union alleged that the products our trading company, EFAD Limited brought into the UK were fake and unsafe for human consumption which made the UK Customs and Excise to act by destroying the products, we had to query the NAFDAC which plays supervisory roles in safeguarding public health as an agency of the Federal Government.
We had to ask what it was doing when products unfit for human consumption were being manufactured in the country. That was why we joined them in the suit. In fact, our initial prayer was to stop the production of Fanta with sunset yellow because it really alarmed us and according to the UK findings, it could cause injury to children and others.
Justice Taiwo in 2009 ruled that NAFDAC should go to the premises of NBC and make it reduce the content of sunset yellow in Fanta. They obeyed the order and reduced the content considerably. Before then, you would notice that whenever children drank Fanta, their tongue would be yellowish.
If they knew that it was not injurious to consumers’ health, why did they reduce the sunset yellow? After that, we got another ruling against NAFDAC compelling it to henceforth do things right after being negligent by allowing manufacturers to do things their way. It was after we concluded those ones that we faced Coca Cola.
Our lawyers wrote them and they were so arrogant. They were not interested in our loss as a customer who bought products from them. Their response to our lawyers was a little less insulting. We then thought that if we had been so badly treated in England on an issue that was a fault of a manufacturer in Nigeria, I would not come to my country and be so treated. I, therefore, swore to pursue the case until justice was served.
Adeniji: Would you say what you described as the company’s arrogant response to your plight made you sustain the legal battle for a decade?
Fijabi: My main aim was to save Nigerians. I later got rulings compelling the NBC to reduce the sunset yellow in Fanta and make NAFDAC responsible in discharging its responsibilities. I also got an order for the continuous monitoring of the content of Coca Cola products. The rulings were satisfying to me. At the time we got the rulings, one would have expected them to act in a normal, serious and corporate manner. But all we got was that we did not tell them we were taking the products to the UK.
What law says I should tell them where I was taking the products to? By law, I have a right to export to anywhere in the world? Through the Nigerian company law, I have a limited liability company and also a licensed company in the UK. I brought a shipping company to their premises to load the drinks including customs to check the products. What else do they want me to do?
Adeniji: How financially challenging has it been for you to pursue the legal battle for 10 years?
Fijabi: It is quite substantial but I sued them based on principles. They are rich; they are multinational and oppressors and think that they can write me off. But I know that my God will be with me. I can go 20 years more until I get justice.
Adeniji: What is your next step now that the NBC is challenging the ruling that it should place warning signs on Fanta and Sprite containers, claiming that the level of benzoic acid in the drinks are within the level approved by local regulators?
Fijabi: The same judgment of Justice Adedayo Oyebanji was the order that I was compelled to adhere to in England. I was compelled to fix labels on the Coca Cola of about 3,000 crates that were spared stating they were this and that. I labelled all of them as ordered but the Fanta and Sprite were confiscated.
If you look at the order carefully, it is only meant to alert the public on their choice. To state that if you like you can buy it, but this is what is in it. I brought one of the Coca Cola to court. The court did not even address my loss because it observed that I placed emphasis on moral interest than on financial interest. Like I said earlier, I wanted to alert the public. But now, we are also praying the court that based on what it found out, we are entitled to compensation on what we lost as damages.
The judgment favoured Nigerians as we had uncovered what the company was hiding from us and exposed the inadequacies of NBC. We brought in specialists from England to buttress our claims in court. After settling that, the second issue is about what we went through. The money we spent to buy the products was not useful to us. We need to get it back. We also faced a lot with the UK Customs and Excise and the Coca Cola European Union.
In England, we were portrayed as criminals. It took me almost a year to convince people there that I did not manufacture the products and to explain what happened in order to clear my name and my company’s name.
We are entitled to a refund. If one buys something that is not good, one should be able to return it and get a refund.
Adeniji: Do you agree with the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, that the level of benzoic acid in Fanta and Sprite are in compliance with both the Codex and Nigerian Industrial Standards and thus safe for consumption?
Fijabi: No, absolutely not. I do not agree with him. Let me tell you this. I feel ashamed that a professor of medicine is dabbling into what he does not know. It is not his field. I earned a PhD in political economy. I would not dabble into what I do not know. We have Nigerians who are scientists in the UK.
I had interacted with people who know the dangers of the content of the drink. Codex Alimentarius (Latin word for food code) is a food trade-standards organisation formed in 1945. A former Nazi is the father of contemporary codex. The codex was created by the World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
All members of FAO and WHO who joined the organisation are there strictly to attend annual conferences and adopt a convention on food codes. It is not a mandatory United Nations convention. It is a voluntary attendance. They are just to direct or advise. I want the minister to tell Nigerians the country’s representatives at codex? The UK, European Union and the US, from whom NAFDAC took its ideals from, are members of the organisation.
Since 1958, the UK, the European Union and the US have changed their food codes more than 20 times. Today, sunset yellow is banned in Europe and the UK. It is a dye which if put in a drink and one takes Vitamin C ignorantly with it, can cause a chemical explosion in one’s body. A research was done to discover that. We read in some national dailies that the health minister exonerated the NBC and called for a probe whereas I, the complainant, was not given a chance to see our wise, all-knowing minister. You cannot cut my head in my absence.
Adeniji: What lessons have you learnt from the development regarding the products manufactured in Nigeria for Nigerians?
Fijabi: I have faith in this country. I am from a family that believes in Nigeria. We, however, need to pray that in a country where monkeys are ruling human beings, there must be a change.