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IAEA-Supported Laboratories in Uganda Responding to Food Safety Emergencies


Ugandan experts are now able to carry out independent sampling and testing of various foodstuffs in the country, allowing the Government authorities to determine exposure to contaminated food in a timely manner, prevent the spread of food safety hazards, and contain food safety emergencies such as the recent outbreak of food poisoning in the country’s North-eastern region of Karamoja. This was possible thanks to the enhanced analytical capabilities and new skills developed through support from the IAEA in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), at the country’s main laboratories: the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) and the Directorate of Government Analytical Laboratory (DGAL).

“In the past, the lack of adequate diagnostic and analytical testing capacities limited our ability to minimize health risks to the public, including responding to outbreaks and emergencies and investigating suspected causes,’’ said Deus Mubangizi, Manager of the Testing Division at UNBS.

Following reports of suspected food poisoning in the Karamoja region, resulting from the consumption of tainted relief food, the UNBS and the DGAL experts joined the Ugandan authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of this food safety emergency that sent dozens of people to hospital with some deaths also reported.

The outbreak and the role of the labs

In March 2019, health authorities in Uganda recorded several people from the country’s North Eastern region of Karamoja falling sick with suspicion that this followed consumption of a super cereal fortified food that had been distributed as part of a relief programme. The suspected food was Corn Soy Blend Plus (CSB+) imported and distributed to the districts of Amudat, Nakapiripirit, Moroto, Napak, Nabilatuk, Kabong, and Kotido. A total of 289 people from the districts of Napak and Amudat were admitted to various health centres, which reported seven fatalities. A comprehensive investigation was urgently undertaken to assess the safety and quality of the suspected super cereal food and curb the outbreak.

The UNBS and the DGAL, two beneficiaries of the IAEA’s technical cooperation, the State House (President’s Office), the Office of Prime Minister, the Ministry of Health, WHO Representatives in Uganda and the Uganda Police Force joined forces to investigate and contain the outbreak.

Using skills and analytical capabilities acquired through the support of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, the UNBS and DGAL carried out independent sampling and testing of various samples of the suspected food, in terms of safety, quality and toxicology. The parameters analysed included mycotoxins such as aflatoxins; pesticides, toxic metals and pathogenic microbes among others. Their findings were validated by the analysis of selected samples, conducted outside the country, confirming the international standing of UNBS and DGAL.

“Now, thanks to the International Atomic Energy Agency support, our laboratory has the equipment and the know-how to run routine food testing and analysis and handle major food safety emergencies,’’ said Kepher Kuchana Kateu, Director of DGAL. “The outbreak could have spread further or affected more consumers if stakeholders including the two laboratories – with their unique technical capabilities – had not been in a position to intervene, promptly.” Mr Kateu added.

IAEA capacity building in Uganda

The IAEA supported expert missions, training courses and delivery of essential equipment, facilitating optimum use of the state-of-the-art analytical facilities at Uganda’s DGAL and UNBS laboratories, namely: radio receptor assays equipment, isotope dependent liquid chromatographic and spectrometric tools, liquid chromatographic instrument, equipment to facilitate sample preparation and storage, and analytical material to ensure performance according to international standards.

This support also enhanced the hands-on experience of UNBS/DGAL experts (more than 10 trainees) who have since been using various nuclear and isotopic techniques to conduct thorough testing and analysis of multiple residues and contaminants in foods, according to international standards.

This important capacity building in food safety is having an impact not only within Uganda but also in neighbouring countries. With its enhanced capacity and newly developed expertise, the UNBS team is playing a key role in technology and knowledge transfer to other African countries. The team has so far hosted over 100 food safety scientists for training and hands-on experience on the use of nuclear and isotopic techniques to test and identify harmful chemical residue and contaminants in food products.

Uganda’s food safety institutions have now turned from depending on foreign laboratories to responding to their pressing national needs to conducting the tests themselves, and furthermore, to helping scientists from other African nations gain expertise and advanced knowledge in food safety analysis for the benefit of consumer protection and prevention and control of food safety emergencies.

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