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.