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Aflatoxin levels in cow milk and feed in the Addis Ababa milk shed—New study


Ethiopian farmer with fresh milk from her cow (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

This article is written by ILRI scientists Dawit Gizachew, Barbara Szonyi, Azage Tegegne, Jean Hanson and Delia Grace

Editor’s note: A statement in the article below, comparing various levels of risk, offended some of our readers. We thank those readers who let us know that this statement did not occur to them as helpful and we have removed it. The authors did not mean to give offence or to treat the subject of public risk lightly. Rather, the authors meant to calm public fears about consuming milk and dairy in Addis, while also informing the public that the results of their preliminary study indicated that further investigations were needed. The Ethiopian Government has responded quickly and fully to news of these research results and has set up a task force to assess and monitor levels of aflatoxin in feed and food in the country. And, as stated below, ILRI is looking for funds to do further research on this.

It may also help to note that studies of aflatoxin levels in feed and food have been made only relatively recently in Africa and other parts of the developing world. We simply do not know as much about this topic as we want to know and should know. But many research groups are now conducting studies of aflatoxins and ways to reduce high toxin levels in feeds and foods. Please check back here for further reporting on this important subject.

To find out the state of knowledge generated to date by ILRI and its partner organizations about aflatoxins in Africa’s food and feed, please see more articles on this topic published on the ILRI News and AgHealth blogs. See, for example, an article on Aflatoxins in Kenya’s food chain: Overview of what researchers are doing to combat the threat to public health, which contains links to a series of 19 informative research briefs on aflatoxins co-edited by ILRI scientist Delia Grace and published by the International Food Policy Research Institute in November 2013. All of ILRI’s research publications on aflatoxins are listed in ILRI’s repository here, with links to the original materials.


A vibrant dairy sector is important for the economic development of Ethiopia. Dairy offers a pathway out of poverty for a large number of households keeping livestock. At the same time, the dairy industry can provide highly nutritious animal-source foods (milk and dairy products) to meet the increasing food security and nutritional requirements of an expanding population.

Estimates place Ethiopia far below recommended milk intake, and even below the African-wide average in per capita consumption. However, tremendous potential exists to increase production and consumption of dairy products (source: United States Agency for International Development/Land O’Lakes: ‘The next stage in dairy development for Ethiopia’). As the dairy sector in Ethiopia is growing, attention needs to be paid to quality testing of both dairy feeds and milk to ensure that the milk is safe for consumers.

We recently published the results of a survey on aflatoxins in cow’s milk and dairy cattle feed in the Addis Ababa area. Our results showed levels of aflatoxin in some of the milk samples significantly higher than that allowed by European Union (EU) and USA standards. While the situation is of concern and definitely warrants action, only less than one in five samples were above the limits set by the US (but these are more lenient than those set by the EU). On the other hand, other countries are adopting the standards of the USA or EU, which has implications for international trade.

We do not recommend that consumers stop consuming milk and dairy products in Addis Ababa, because milk has very high nutritional value.

The other good news is that we have identified the main culprit—noug cake, an animal feed made from Niger seed that is a by-product of noug oil factories.

Though all dairy farmers of different towns use similar types of animal feeds, differences in temperature, moisture and storage conditions might be the cause for the variation of aflatoxin contamination between areas. In addition, the composition of the feed mixture (in particular the proportion of noug cake) will have an effect on the toxin content.

This contamination can be fixed either by improving handling and storage, using decontaminants or aflatoxin binders in animal feeds, or by avoiding risky feeds. Milk from cows not fed contaminated feed even for a few days is free of aflatoxin. Passing of aflatoxins into meat and eggs is much, much less, so we are not so concerned about contamination in meat or eggs, although testing these products for aflatoxin levels would also be useful.

We suggest the following approaches to move forward:

  • The survey, though statistically sound, was relatively small. A larger survey would help identify hot spots where problems are worst and areas where the problem is less.
  • Having identified noug cake as a major problem, it would be possible to work with dairy producers to reduce or mitigate contamination by applying intervention methods.
  • Other countries successfully adapted a test and certificate scheme. This could be explored in the Ethiopian context.

ILRI is seeking funds to support follow-up studies on aflatoxins in Ethiopia.
—Barbara Szonyi


30 thoughts on “Aflatoxin levels in cow milk and feed in the Addis Ababa milk shed—New study

  1. ontext of managing found the Ethoipian experience very interesting in the following ways:
    1. it demonstrates the need for a global outlook in managing ang growing small businesses if Africa. MSMEs need to grow keeping an eye on these contemporary global strategies of managing business
    2. The article does not ignore local conditions/context in that small businesses may not “fly” at the same international standards as businesses in US or EU but, need to balance ambition to reach those standards with other important issues like good nutrition provided by milk to a community facing a weak livelihood asset base
    3. The decision by the project to gather more date to substantiate the situation in Ethiopia is plausible. In Africa we need development we believe in, not a pie in the sky.

    Keep on the good work colleagues…Ragards, Ronny

  2. On November 1st. 2015 ; Fortune newspaper published an article ” Curdling Reality of Milk” stating ” 92% contains unhealthy amount of aflatoxin”..it used your report as source.. Are you aware of that ? Because your report doesn’t state such findings..and I find the article or your findings misleading. Please verify before I see fit to take action ; because this will create panic if not addressed sufficentley. Thank you

  3. In fact we appreciate the findings of this research, however demonstrating of such information to public will create confusion instead this has to be dicuss ed with stakeholders and finding a solution was best. This time due to this Information many families stope feeding milk to their children. don’t you think this will agravate the malnutrition level.
    what are you advising the farmers to reduce this risk?
    what role does ilri played so far to educate the small scale dairy farmers?

  4. The following is from your paper (which is being circulated to many).
    “The majority (93%) of milk samples exceeded the limit of 0.05 mg/L set by the EU. Furthermore, all dairy feeds exceeded 5 mg/kg of AFB1. Our results also indicate that noug cake, which is widely used as dairy cattle feed, is a major source of aflatoxin contamination in the peri-urban dairy value chain of Addis Ababa”.
    “young children are weaned on to cow’s milk and they are not immune-competent at this early age, consumption of milk contaminated with AFM1 may further suppress their immunity and contribute to stunting (Bondy & Pestka, 2000; Gong et al., 2004). In addition, it has been estimated that aflatoxins may play a causative role in up to 30% of the cases of liver cancer globally each year (World Health Organization, 2014)”.

    And now you are telling the public to act the otherwise. What does this mean? As scientist you need to tell us the right thing. There is the fear that dairy producers will be suffering a lot looking for markets. Who is going to be responsible? The processors, retailers, or who – the big ILRI and its staff? Tell us who will take the responsibility. People working in Western projects are advising their partners to look for Dutch or other dairy farmers for powder milk …… to access for market. The innocent Ethiopians are decreed to suffer.
    Which one is the public to believe?

  5. I just heard about this news just now and I’m in shock. I feed my one year old a pasteurized bottle of any of the brands available in Addis. Should I immediately quit these and get back to other formulas? I’m waiting for an instant answer!

    • In fact at one year. Your child should first rely on breastfeeding and then provide other foods available in the family but in a softer consistency. Otherwise breast milk is still key to this baby. For now handle it this way until you find an right alternative. Please make sure you start with breastfeeding then any other locally available food eaten in the family.

  6. I cant believe ILRI/Delia Grace suggest we should continue using the milk despite the staggering finding because ‘there are many things in Addis Ababa that are more dangerous, such as driving a motorbike without a helmet … ‘ I found the statment condescending! Why did you do the study in the first place if you are going to downplay your finding?

  7. I can’t decide wether to give my son the cow milk or not because if the niger cake is z case for aflatoxin, my supplier told me they don’t use it at all. I want to believe him but the reports are really scary if they are actually using the Niger cake. Seriously we are panicking!!!

  8. The above concerns are just tips of the iceberg and concerned researchers and institutes shall provide the best evidence on the magnitude of the problem and strategies to combat such largely public threat.

  9. Yes, we need to know what to give and not too. The research should indicate what to avoid, in what to replace and other detailed information like the yougurt we purchase, the cheese, even the butter. we are really counting on you for further information.

  10. How representative was the study to conclude and generalize that Addis’s Milk has this product…I am also feeding my 11/2 year old with Shola milk, should all parents just stop feeding any milk and turn to formula? You might not have all the answers to the cause and solutions but it is your obligation to make your study clear and detail the representativness of the study

  11. The aflatoxin level of Milk and cow feed around Addis Ababa is beyond the international level as per your study report (march 2015 46). i appreciate your studies on such matter which is directly affects the health of nations and i suggest you to study the aflatoxin level of Meat plus the preservative chemical content of the packed milk.

  12. isn’t there a problem the level of toxin existing currently towards infants who are consuming the same milk….b/c…..some mothers can not feed their natural milk to their infants…my be not enough to feed…there fore they will be obliged to give cow milk as they do not afford powder mils………..i do not the long term effect on babies

  13. according to this study the amount of aflatoxin found in milk is above the standard of USA and EU but the government officials say that it is below USA standard so we are confusing. Finally what is ur recommendation of this research finding ?

  14. Dear ILRI scientists I have read the article you posted and it is not very descriptive.You need to show us how you did the study including the sample size and the sampling techniques. And it seems that there is a descripancy of your findings in that you said less than 1 in 5 have higher aflatoxin level and in another refernce it says > 93%.What is this? their seems to be some confusion and you need to put a very plausable explanation and sound scientific evidence rather than creating a confusion in the public.I can’t see what your agenda is.Is it to favor the powder milks which come from abroad or what? Please try to be as scientific as possible. And I think it is because you did the study in a very small sample that you are looking for funds to do it in a larger scale and till then it would have been better to keep quiet. And by the way where did you get approval of you study? Please give us answers.

  15. I live in Addis Ababa Ethiopia and yesterday visited the small business which keeps the 8 dairy cows that provide the milk sold by my local shop. The milk is delivered by the very man who milks the cows.
    I was very kindly shown anything the cows eat;
    Atark’k + shiro fray (remains of lentils)
    Bokila frushka (remains of processed maize)
    Ye biira chamake (remaining mulch from beer making)
    Tatafrei (cotton seed)
    So unless the cotton seed has potential to generate the same chemicals I’m going to carry on drinking milk.
    I think I’m more likely to die from hitting a cow on the road on Ethiopia than drinking its milk!

  16. So I wonder if the problem is not actually nuug cake but cotton seed.
    As my previous comment shows, the cows in my local dairy in Addis Ababa were eating cotton seed which in Iran (at least in the study below) was find to contain aflatixins.
    So the answer is simple. I will offer to buy the sack of cotton seed they are going to feed the cow and ask them to please feed anything else.
    And I think we’ll carry on drinking the milk for the time being.

    • Hi did you manage to convince the owner of the cows to stop feeding cotton seed? Where abouts do you live? We are new to Addis a s wondering how to deal with this issue.

  17. ILRI should strictly follow and announce the findings to the concerned bodies and the whole communities as it is. It has not be submissive and denying the findings. I red that
    1.In all milk samples the level of AFM1 was from 0.028 to 4.98 micro-gram per liter. So those areas in which the level of AFM1 exceed 0.05 micro-gram per liter should be identified and needs interventions on the feeding of cows. Hopefully, you all the researchers be courage and serious to convince the concerned bodies.Don’t politicize it; it is a big health issue about all Ethiopian children. Try to expand your research to all parts of the country;since the same problem may exist in the other dairy farms. Emphasis on the immediate and last longing solutions.Thank you for your efforts.

  18. There are many research works which are put only on a shelf, they did nothing for the community rather they were used for graduation purpose. Can we say that this finding only on 100 cows was satisfactory for publication and to get attention from the government officials?

  19. The sample set on the original research was too small and a research is to be made on a large sample set. Well, that sounds reasonable. But in the mean time, instead of keeping this result on shelf, it is mandatory to warn the public about the concern and how further studies are to be made. That way both producers and consumers will be aware of the cause and the harm that might occur and start adjusting accordingly.

  20. Do you know how much your reaches disturbed
    people in addis?and the government denied because your reasearch is based on EU standard.Is there any different standards for different contenent.why for?
    Also l would like to ask the solutions ?

  21. Many thanks for your questions and comments, which are much appreciated. ILRI’s survey, which included 100 commercial dairy farms in and around Addis Ababa, was statistically sound and representative but limited in time and space. A larger survey would help understand the problem better, and identify areas where the problem is worse and areas where the problem is less so that optimal mitigation strategies can be implemented if and where needed.
    The European Union limit on aflatoxin levels in milk is much more stringent than that of the USA. While most of the milk samples in the study did exceed the EU limit of 0.05 micrograms per litre, only 17% of the samples from producers were above the USA limit of 0.5 micrograms per litre.
    The study was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, which is led by the International Food Policy Research Institute, with ILRI leading a research component on ‘Prevention and Control of Agriculture-associated Diseases’, and by the Livestock and Irrigation Value chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) project, which is led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in partnership with the International Water Management Institute, the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and several other national institutions.
    The Ethiopian Government is already putting in place several measures to reduce any risk of aflatoxins to public safety, following publication of ILRI’s research report. A news article published in Amharic here (translated into English here by ILRI communications staff) on 15 November 2015 by the Ethiopian Reporter expands on reports of the measures being undertaken to address aflatoxin levels in feed and food in Ethiopia, reporting, for example, that Ethiopia’s Food, Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority has started working to understand the situation and has set a sustained monitoring system, the Ethiopian Public Health Institute will conduct a study in collaboration with the task force established by the Ethiopian Ministry of Health and including producers, smallholder dairy farmers and feed suppliers, among others, and a food safety institute will be established to conduct studies every three months.
    We hope that this helps clarify some of the questions. We look forward to keeping an open dialogue and working together towards a solution.

  22. Here is a new (20 Nov 2015) IPS news article outlining the risks to aflatoxins in Africa and what is being done about it:

    Here is a link to the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), a regional project led by the African Union Commission and in which ILRI and the BecA-ILRI Hub are participating. PACA was formed in 2009 to minimize and ultimately eradicate aflatoxins using proven and innovative strategies:

  23. 1.In ethiopia 98% milk is from the house-hold rural faremers.so then they do not use niger seed
    2.the sample size is very small even in addiss
    The sample set on the original research was too small and a research is to be made on a large sample set. Well, that sounds reasonable. But in the mean time, instead of keeping this result on shelf, it is mandatory to warn the public about the concern and how further studies are to be made. That way both producers and consumers will be aware of the cause and the harm that might occur and start adjusting accordingly.
    3.aflatoxin is unavoidabl it has.quality standard parameters measurment inorder to say more toxic.according to this study the amount of aflatoxin found in milk is above the standard of USA and EU but the government officials say that it is below USA standard in my on opinion it is true

  24. New FAO-TAMU programme on proficiency testing for aflatoxin analysis:

    ‘As part of a continued commitment to feed laboratories’ analytical success through implementation of quality system, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Texas A&M (TAMU) are working together to deliver an aflatoxin proficiency testing programme. Proficiency testing is one of the BIG THREE in a laboratory quality system, along with traceability and uncertainty. Participation in proficiency testing programmes helps a laboratory assure the quality of test results (ISO 17025 5.9).

    ‘We recognize that few proficiency testing programmes are available for feed laboratories and participation is expensive. This programme helps address this gap. The participants will receive a proficiency sample twice during 2016. The programme is offered at no cost to participants. Initially, the proficiency testing will focus on total aflatoxin and/or aflatoxin B1 analysis.’. . .

    ‘The FAO-Texas A&M programme includes sending a two proficiency samples in one year. In particular, a single 100+ g sample will be mailed by FAO twice a year. Participants are expected to analyze a 50 g portion, twice for each sample and report both results.

    ‘Eligible participants include grain milling and grain handling firms, feed manufacturing industry, government laboratories and educational institutions. The total number of participants is limited to 60.

    ‘Results for total aflatoxin and aflatoxin B1 will be reviewed for outliers before the assigned value, range, and standard deviation of the results are calculated. The Z value for each laboratory will be calculated and reported.

    ‘Texas A&M and FAO will not divulge the identity of programme participants. Texas A&M and FAO will respond to participant questions and work with laboratories to help address big variations upon request.’

    Contact Information
    Tim Herrman PhD
    Professor, State Chemist and Director
    Office of the Texas State Chemist
    Texas A&M AgriLife Research


  25. Guys do not get confused with the study, rather try to think of the extent of Noug production in the country and the number of factories using noug as a raw material. There are a lot of things to worry about!

  26. Hirpha ketema I am Msc Animal production student at Haramaya university so , If same one cover cost for laboratory , i went to study Aflatoxin levels in cow milk and feed in the Ambo Town and around per-urban town milk produced

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