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[NAIROBI] There is a new way of testing milled maize that can pick the dangerous aflatoxin contamination and improve food safety, a study says.

The scientists who did the quality control system trial in Kenya say that it improved food safety for about 10 million people in the country between 2014 and 2015.

The quality control system involved training of analysts, testing the ability of analysts to measure aflatoxin accurately, developing and implementing a food safety plan by commercial maize millers, and verifying the testing accuracy at a laboratory accredited by the Kenya Accreditation Service.

“The study’s outcome will contribute to reducing losses of already scarce staple crops by minimizing their rejection [because of their contamination with aflatoxins].”

Charity Mutegi, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

The World Health Organization says that aflatoxins are poisonous substances produced by certain fungi found all over the world and can contaminate food crops with serious health threat to humans and livestock. In Africa, the WHO estimates that there are over 500 million of the poorest people exposed to aflatoxin, with the majority living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

These fungi usually found on dead and decaying vegetation, under favourable conditions in tropical and subtropical regions as wells as high temperatures and high humidity can invade food crops.

The International Food Policy Research Institute reports that on average, 26,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa die of liver cancer every year through chronic aflatoxin exposure.

The study published in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Food Protection assessed the potential of a quality control system — called Aflatoxin Proficiency Testing Control in Africa — in improving the testing of aflatoxin in commercial maize in Kenya.

“Quality systems are universal and ideally can be applied to any industry, problem and culture,” says Timothy Herrman, lead author of the study and a professor at the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Texas A&M University in the United States.

The project hosted five rounds of a proficiency programme designed to evaluate aflatoxin testing accuracy in Kenya. It included two rounds in 2014 involving five and eight laboratories and three rounds in 2015 involving seven, 12 and 16 laboratories.

Herrman tells SciDev.Net that the project led to large-scale private sector millers being able to ensure that maize products were not introduced into the market above the maximum aflatoxin level of ten micrograms per each kilogram of product as established by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, adding that this improved food safety for about ten million people in Kenya.

Herrman says that the project, which was launched in 2014 in Kenya by Texas A&M AgriLife Research, extended the quality systems approach to commercial mills that are members of the Cereal Millers Association, which has members in East African and Southern African countries.

“In 2019, we reached laboratories in over 60 countries, serving four billion people in developing countries,” he explains, adding that 13 of the countries are located in Africa. According to Herrman, aflatoxin risk in Africa seems well documented the Kenyan study shows that quality systems approach will help mitigate mycotoxin risk in Africa.

A study conducted in 2018 shows that equipment needed for the confirmation of the level of aflatoxin contamination in the laboratory is very costly and inaccessible to many researchers in Africa who often do not have national facilities to test their samples.

They either have to travel to few other African countries such as Kenya with the equipment or send their samples abroad to cope with the lack of trained laboratory personnel able to use the test equipment. Many African labs cannot guarantee the quality control and assurance schemes.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation says that whereas heating can reduce contamination, aflatoxin is a complex organic chemical which is not easily broken down once it has been created and chemical treatment has been used as the most effective means for its removal from contaminated commodities.

Charity Mutegi, a scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Kenya, says that the study is an important step for harmonising the accuracy of aflatoxin test results in maize and other commodities.

She tells SciDev.Net that involving the private sector in addressing quality issues in maize products is a sustainable approach.

“The study’s outcome will contribute to reducing losses of already scarce staple crops by minimising their rejection [because of their contamination with aflatoxins],” Mutegi explains.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

References

Timothy Herrman and others Aflatoxin proficiency testing and control in Kenya (Journal of Food Protection, January 2020)

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