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The alert for aflatoxin contamination in Africa

More than 4.5 billion people in developing countries may be chronically exposed. Aflatoxin contamination most often occurs when crops suffer stress, such as drought or insect infestation

Aflatoxin is a toxic, carcinogenic by-product of fungi that colonize maize and groundnuts, among other crops. In Sub-Saharan Africa, maize is significant as both a livestock feed and as a staple accounting for 42 percent of the cereal crop. Groundnuts are an important cash crop controlled largely by women.

More than 4.5 billion people in developing countries may be chronically exposed to aflatoxins in their diets. Common to tropical climates, aflatoxin contamination most often occurs when crops suffer stress, such as drought or insect infestation. Aflatoxins are considered unavoidable contaminants of food and feed, even where good manufacturing practices have been followed.

While developed countries regularly test for aflatoxin, many developing countries lack cost-effective ways to test and many smallholder farmers lack ways to prevent contamination, which ultimately impedes their ability to market crops.

“In developed countries, exposure to such toxins is successfully limited through stringent food safety regulation and monitoring,” said Clare Narrod, IFPRI senior research fellow and the project’s lead researcher. “Unfortunately, this is not the case in developing countries due to the prominence of subsistence farming systems, lack of irrigation, and inadequate drying and storing facilities. As a result, many people are chronically exposed to aflatoxins in their diets and are at risk for serious health problems.”

The ingestion of high levels of aflatoxins can be fatal, while chronic exposure may result in serious health conditions such as cancer and liver cirrhosis, weakened immune systems, and stunted growth. In livestock, some mycotoxins are acutely toxic and can cause vomiting, feed refusal, and decreased weight gain in swine. While the full impact of the toxin is unknown, there have been links to aggravation of health in HIV/AIDS patients in populations that subsist on legume and cereal-based diets and milk from their livestock.

“There is an urgent need to systematically collect data concerning exposure to aflatoxin contamination, from the farm, to the market, and on to the consumer,” said George Mahuku, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) senior scientist and project researcher.

by S. C.
07 september 2009, World News > Africa

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