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Economic and health impact of unsafe food in Africa – The cause of Aflatoxin, a silent threat for African food commodities

By Yergalem Taages Beraki 

Food must be safe in order not to pose health threats to consumers or act as a barrier to trade. Food must also be safe to facilitate the smooth functioning of the overall agri-food system that underpins economic development and food and nutrition security. The interplay of food security and food safety cannot be better exemplified by the impact and challenges of Aflatoxin, than anything else. 

Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins produced by certain fungi, most importantly Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. Aflatoxins contaminate many African dietary staples such as maize, groundnuts, rice, and cassava. Animals are also affected if a feed is laced with aflatoxin, and they then transmit the poison to humans through their products, such as meat, milk or eggs. Changing climatic conditions, poor agricultural and post-harvest management practices favour the growth and proliferation of the aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus in Africa. Its contamination can occur throughout value chains, making it a challenge for target interventions. Pre-harvest occurrence of aflatoxin increases when crops are subjected to stress factors such as drought and attacks from pests.

Contamination after harvest spikes with poor drying, storage and handling. The aflatoxin problem is so complex that it straddles three sectors – agriculture, trade and public health. Given the link between aflatoxins and adverse human health impact, contaminated food also presents a clear food security threat. 

Aflatoxin contamination of key staples can affect the agricultural sector output generally and each of the four pillars of food security- availability, access, utilization, and stability. Contamination in staples can directly reduce the availability of food. Producers may also earn less because of product rejection and the inability to access higher-value international trade. Lower farmer income in turn limits the ability to purchase food for households, which translates into reduced access to food. Aflatoxin contamination can result in a direct economic impact through export rejection from importers with stringent aflatoxin regulations such as the European Union (EU) countries. Between 2007 and 2012, the EU alone issued 346 notifications to African countries.

Aflatoxin contamination of key staples—maize, groundnuts and sorghum—occurs above safe levels in many African countries. Estimates of aflatoxin contamination in staple foods are as high as 60 per cent in some areas within the East African Community (EAC). 

The negative economic effect of Aflatoxin in Africa can be better explained by its impact on the export of groundnuts. Africa could earn up to US$1 billion per year from groundnut exports by regaining the 77% share of the global groundnut export market it enjoyed in the 1960s instead of the current share of 4%, valued at just US$64 million. The health and nutrition impact of Aflatoxin is huge. The best-documented health impact of chronic exposure to aflatoxins is liver cancer. According to the African Union’s Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa programme, aflatoxin alone is responsible for 30% of liver cancer cases globally, with the highest incidence (more than 40%) occurring in Africa. It is estimated that 26,000 Africans in sub-Saharan Africa die annually of liver cancer associated with aflatoxin exposure.

The complex challenge of dealing with risks to foods susceptible to aflatoxin contamination in Africa needs everyone involved in food chains – from farm to fork – to play a part under the umbrella of Africa-wide policies and regulations that apply international food safety standards. Building a chain of laboratories across Africa to track compliance with such standards will safeguard African consumers and open markets close to African farmers, traders and food industries.

Good agricultural practices at the planting and harvesting stage are important to address production-related aflatoxin problems. It is also critical to consider good post-harvest practices, including proper storage, transport, and processing, as also critical, as this is a particularly vulnerable point for contamination of both food and animal feed.  Awareness raising is crucial to increase demand for aflatoxin-safe products and incentivize the adoption of aflatoxin control strategies, along the value chain. Equally important is awareness raising to raise consumer demand for safe, high-quality food. Addressing information gaps through urgent research, including the prevalence of aflatoxin and its health and economic impact in East African countries to provide evidence and trigger informed decision-making and policy actions, is also key. 

In sum, comprehensive and multi-sectoral approaches must be employed to control the complex aflatoxin problem and improve the health, income, and livelihoods of African farm households and consumers. A comprehensive Aflatoxin control programme that includes a range of components such as effective policies and regulations, food safety standard development and enforcement measures are required. Actions are needed at all levels – continental, national, subnational and local levels to reduce Aflatoxin prevalence and exposure in Africa.

Yergalem Taages Beraki is a Food Security and Safety Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Sub-regional Office for Eastern Africa

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