MSU students study aflatoxin, fumonisin in Africa

Aflatoxin and fumonisin contamination can have serious consequences, especially in places where there isn’t a set monitoring program. But two Michigan State University graduate students, Daniel Mwalwayo of Malawi, and Frida Nyamete of Tanzania, are taking aim at reducing the devastating impacts of the toxins in their home countries.

Aflatoxin is a carcinogenic toxin produced by strains of the mold Aspergillus. It can cause severe health effects in livestock and humans who consume food contaminated with unsafe levels of the toxin. It primarily affects corn (maize), tree nuts, cottonseed, peanuts and milo.

Fumonisin is produced by the species of the mold Fusarium and commonly infect corn and rice. Like aflatoxin, fumonisin is carcinogenic and can cause severe health effects in humans and animals.

To aid in the research, Neogen donated two Reveal® AccuScan III readers and a batch of Reveal Q+ tests. The tests, for aflatoxin and fumonisin, are rapid, easy and accurate test strips that are read in the portable AccuScan III reader.

“When (the research) is published, it will add to the knowledge that (natural toxins) are a serious health problem,” said Dr. Maurice Bennink, a MSU professor and advisor for Daniel and Frida. “First, you have to know how big the problem is, then you can address it.”

Aflatoxin and fumonisin as a detriment to trade – Daniel’s research

Maize is the staple crop of the southern African country of Malawi, with 80 percent of its population of approximately 13 million making a living as farmers in rural areas. Only 20 percent of the farmers produce a surplus, with the rest yielding less than they need for their families. The farmers then sell the high quality grain for income and keep the lower quality maize for consumption, which often is contaminated with aflatoxin, Daniel said.

This is where Daniel’s research comes in.

“Only when the problem is properly defined, can intervention strategies be properly outlined,” he said. “Maize and rice are commonly consumed in Malawi… Data on the prevalence of aflatoxin and fumonisin will give us an outline of the problem and give us a guide in assessing the level of exposure (to aflatoxin and fumonisin) in the population.”

His research focuses on assessing the prevalence of the toxins in maize, rice and groundnuts in districts across Malawi. The study will assess the safety of the food that is consumed by people in rural communities by researching the extent of the mycotoxin contamination and the health impacts it has on the population.

Since Malawi’s major exports are also those that most often are affected by aflatoxin, there are severe negative impacts on the economy when there are outbreaks of the toxin. There also is little data on the quality of grain used as food in rural areas and the impact toxin exposure has on the population, Daniel said.

To track toxin levels, Daniel is using Neogen’s Reveal Q+ test kits and AccuScan III reader, which provide fast and accurate results while being portable.

“We can all help build a healthy Malawi and a healthy Africa by contributing positively toward reducing the mycotoxin problem,” Daniel said. “Food for human consumption should not only be abundant, but also safe.”

Preventing toxins in weaning foods – Frida’s research

In the hot and dry climate of Tanzania, which borders Malawi, aflatoxin and fumonisin can cause severe health effects, especially in children. Frida hopes her research, which focuses on using lactic acid fermentation to reduce toxin levels, will help be part of the solution.

Aflatoxin and fumonisin are major problems in Tanzania, where more than 25 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product relies on agriculture, with about 80 percent of people employed in the agricultural field. It also accounts for 85 percent of its exports, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Approximately 30—40 percent of children in Tanzania are stunted, and research suggests that toxins such as aflatoxin and fumonisin are at least partially to blame. Frida plans to study how fermenting maize, a staple weaning food, can reduce toxin levels in complementary foods. Previous research suggests that this type of fermentation can reduce or get rid of the negative effects of the toxins. Weaning foods are fed to children as they transition from drinking milk to eating solid food.

Frida will use the Reveal Q+ kits to test the maize porridge children eat as a weaning food for aflatoxin and fumonisin. Data from previous research shows that the toxin levels in porridge often are higher than recommended levels, which can lead to stunted growth and other negative health affects, Frida said.

“It’s going to help a lot of children as these toxins suppress immunity and cause cancer,” she said. “It’s reducing the problem where I come from.”

For more information on Neogen’s Q+ tests and the AccuScan III reader, click here.

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