East African Community bands together to tackle aflatoxin problem

Every country in the world has its unique food safety challenges, driven by weather, climate, economy or other factors pertaining to each region. For much of East Africa, the top concern is aflatoxin.

Now, the East African Community (EAC), a coalition of six countries (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) have stepped up their plans to combat aflatoxin. The EAC members have agreed on a policy framework to more effectively deal with the threat of aflatoxin against human and animal health, and have set up a number of workshops and meetings where leaders will concoct battle plans against the carcinogenic threat.

Where the problem lies

The Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) estimates that loss of life is steep due to the carcinogenic aflatoxin, which may be responsible for the high rates of liver cancer in many African countries — at least 5,000 yearly in Nigeria alone. It goes beyond cancer. If populations are exposed to high rates of aflatoxin in the food supply, children’s growth can be stunted and immune systems can be weakened.

The economic damage is high too, as aflatoxin contamination makes it hard for agricultural producers to sell, export or use their products. Contaminated crops usually need to be disposed of, if the levels are too high to use as animal feed. PACA says $670 million (USD) is lost each year to aflatoxin contamination.

Aflatoxin, a natural toxin produced when Aspergillus mold grows on crops, impacts primarily maize and peanuts, some of the bigger staple crops in East Africa. Before the risks of aflatoxin were fully understood, in the 1960s, Africa had 77% of the global peanut export market, reports African Business. Today, that number is just 4%, due to standards in the developed world that some African countries don’t have the means to meet.

Where the solution lies

The EAC plans to step in to stop aflatoxin in its tracks.

“The EAC partner states will develop policies to aid in the formulation and implementation of intervention programs to curb the spread of aflatoxins,” said Christophe Bazivamo, Deputy Secretary General of the EAC.

The EAC’s plan depends on awareness of the sheer magnitude of the aflatoxin problem, in both the public and among policy makers. Workshops have been scheduled in Tanzania and Kenya in conjunction with foreign food nutrition aid groups and commercial industry leaders. At these workshops, experts plan to discuss ways to manage aflatoxin on the farm and at the national level.

With up to 25% of agricultural products in countries like Kenya being contaminated with aflatoxin, according to Mwangi Kiunjuri, Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, a solution is needed in order to help African countries make a bigger splash on the global economic stage and protect public health.

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