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Aflatoxins in Kenya’s food chain: Overview of what researchers are doing to combat the threat to public health

ILRI aflatoxin infographic

Jimmy Smith, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), made the following remarks at a media roundtable ILRI held late last year (14 Nov 2013) on the subject of aflatoxins in the food chain and what research is doing to combat their presence in developing countries.

‘Many organizations within and outside CGIAR are tackling the aflatoxin problem. Earlier this month, for example, a set of 19 research briefs on this global problem was launched in Washington DC by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), IFPRI’s 2020 Vision Initiative, and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH).

Why this topic is critical
‘Aflatoxins are toxic chemicals produced as by-products by fungi (moulds) that grow on maize, groundnuts and other food crops. These toxins also affect feedstuffs, which then contaminate milk, meat and eggs. The toxins occur everywhere in the world, but pose particularly high risks in tropical developing countries where certain staple foods, such as maize and sorghum, comprise a large part of the diets of the poor.

With maize and milk being so important in Kenyan diets, their contamination with aflatoxins poses a large threat to public health here.

‘Take milk for example. Kenya has more than 3 million dairy cows and 800,000 small-scale dairy farmers. A full 86% of Kenya’s milk is marketed “informally” by small-scale producers (note that neither boiling nor pasteurizing milk eliminates the aflatoxins). Kenyan milk consumption, estimated at 100 litres per person per year, is the highest on the continent.

Kenya is one of the world’s hotspots for aflatoxins, with what is believed to be the highest incidence of acute toxicity ever documented. This country suffered severe outbreaks of illness from aflatoxins in 2004 and 2010, poisoning more than 300 people in the 2004 event alone, and killing more than 100 of them. Domestic animals that consume feeds contaminated by aflatoxins also can become sick and die.

‘You will hear further today about the pernicious as well as pervasive damage aflatoxins cause in this as well as other countries’ agriculture and health sectors. Our research tells us that it will take a comprehensive approach to bring aflatoxins down to acceptably low (safe) levels. Scientists within CGIAR and its partner organizations are taking such an approach (see an infographic on this).

‘Through research, many institutes are attacking this problem on multiple fronts, such as:
• Reducing fungal contamination of crops in the field through biocontrol
• Developing cheap and easy to use ways to identify contaminated foods and feeds to prevent them getting into the food chain or being fed to animals
• Assessing the health risks posed by aflatoxins in dairy products

There is still considerable research to be done, but with this army of experts, working in some of the best research facilities on the continent, progress is being made.

Speakers at the 14 Nov 2013 ILRI event included the following.

Abigael Obura, of the US Centers for Disease Control, spoke of the Kenyan context of this problem.

Charity Mutegi, of CGIAR’s International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, where she is on secondment from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, spoke of development of biocontrols that prevent the spread of aflatoxins. Mutegi was recently honoured for her research on aflatoxins with the prestigious 2013 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.

Johanna Lindahl, of ILRI and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, described national surveys conducted with Kenyan institutions to assess the extent and impacts of aflatoxins in dairy products. This constitutes the first ever study to assess the risks to human health of aflatoxins in Africa’s dairy products.

Jagger Harvey, of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-ILRI Hub, described development of cheap and easy-to-use tests to diagnose aflatoxin contamination.

Erastus Kang’ethe, of the University of Nairobi, concluded by noting what research remains to be done, and what practices to take up, to win the battle against aflatoxins in Kenya.

View an ILRI infographic: Aflatoxin: A fungal toxin affecting the food chain

View an ILRI poster: Levels of aflatoxins in the Kenyan dairy value chain: How can we assess the economic impact?, Oct 2013

Read previous articles about this event: ‘Bio-control’=effective control of aflatoxins poisoning Kenya’s staple food crops, 13 Feb 2014
Dairy feed project to reduce aflatoxin contamination in Kenya’s milk, 11 Feb 2014
Australia-funded research fights aflatoxin contamination in East African foods, 6 Feb 2014

Read an ILRI News Blog article introducing a 6-minute film interview of five panelists at the media roundtable on aflatoxins in Kenya: Reducing aflatoxins in Kenya’s food chains: Filmed highlights from an ILRI media briefing, 19 Dec 2013

Read an ILRI News blog article introducing a 6-minute ILRI film interview of John McDermott (IFPRI) and Delia Grace (ILRI), who lead research on aflatoxins for A4NH: Fighting aflatoxins: CGIAR scientists Delia Grace and John McDermott describe the disease threats and options for better control, 8 Nov 2013

Read more about the 19 IFPRI aflatoxin briefs released in Nov 2013: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/aflatoxins-finding-solutions-improved-food-safety

Read the whole publication: Aflatoxins: Finding solutions for improved food safety, edited by Laurian Unnevehr and Delia Grace

Download Table of Contents and Introduction
1. Tackling Aflatoxins: An Overview of Challenges and Solutions by Laurian Unnevehr and Delia Grace
2. Aflatoxicosis: Evidence from Kenya by Abigael Obura
3. Aflatoxin Exposure and Chronic Human Diseases: Estimates of Burden of Disease by Felicia Wu
4. Child Stunting and Aflatoxins by Jef L Leroy
5. Animals and Aflatoxins by Delia Grace
6. Managing Mycotoxin Risks in the Food Industry: The Global Food Security Link by David Crean
7. Farmer Perceptions of Aflatoxins: Implications for Intervention in Kenya by Sophie Walker and Bryn Davies
8. Market-led Aflatoxin Interventions: Smallholder Groundnut Value Chains in Malawi by Andrew Emmott
9. Aflatoxin Management in the World Food Programme through P4P Local Procurement by Stéphane Méaux, Eleni Pantiora and Sheryl Schneider
10. Reducing Aflatoxins in Africa’s Crops: Experiences from the Aflacontrol Project by Clare Narrod
11. Cost-Effectiveness of Interventions to Reduce Aflatoxin Risk by Felicia Wu
12. Trade Impacts of Aflatoxin Standards by Devesh Roy
13. Codex Standards: A Global Tool for Aflatoxin Management by Renata Clarke and Vittorio Fattori
14. The Role of Risk Assessment in Guiding Aflatoxin Policy by Delia Grace and Laurian Unnevehr
15. Mobilizing Political Support: Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa by Amare Ayalew, Wezi Chunga and Winta Sintayehu
16. Biological Controls for Aflatoxin Reduction by Ranajit Bandyopadhyay and Peter J Cotty
17. Managing Aflatoxin Contamination of Maize: Developing Host Resistance by George Mahuku, Marilyn L Warburton, Dan Makumbi and Felix San Vicente
18. Reducing Aflatoxins in Groundnuts through Integrated Management and Biocontrol by Farid Waliyar, Moses Osiru, Hari Kishan Sudini and Samuel Njoroge
19. Improving Diagnostics for Aflatoxin Detection by Jagger Harvey, Benoit Gnonlonfin, Mary Fletcher, Glen Fox, Stephen Trowell, Amalia Berna, Rebecca Nelson and Ross Darnell

5 thoughts on “Aflatoxins in Kenya’s food chain: Overview of what researchers are doing to combat the threat to public health

  1. In the Eastern region of Kenya, Aflatoxin is a big issue. Especially during bumper harvests. The traditional storage systems have been replaced with storage under the bed, where the RH is high, there by creating a conducive environment for aflatoxin fungi. Capacity building on this will be helpful to millions of farmers in the Eastern region. Residents have associated it with witchcraft called Kithitu. In 2006, a whole family in Makueni county was wiped out. A ‘campaign dubbed ‘Mbuka ti Kithitu’….’Aflatoxin is not Witchcraft’ by then the minister for agriculture, Mr. Kirwa. Some headways were made. More need to be done especially with gnuts, maize, pigeonpeas. Affordable Innovative storage systems need to be developed, targeting households.

  2. Eastern Kenya has indeed suffered to a great extent from aflatoxins. Therefore, this is one of the regions we focus on in our research. As suggested, storage systems, affordable and acceptable to all farmers, could be key to reducing the problem and we are looking at finding solutions that will fulfill all requirements.
    However, even with new innovations, capacity building do remain one of the most important measures to increase awareness, and therefore it is a very important component of this research program.

    • Thank you Shamba Shape Up! Just watched the segment on aflatoxins in groundnuts (episode of 14 Apr 2014, starts at 10:00-minute mark and continues till 15:30 minutes). With Sam Njoroge, of ICRISAT, giving the smallholders farmer family in Bungoma, Kenya, expert advice. Just great!

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