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Mycotoxin Control Benefits Public Health and Economy of Zambia


Each year, countries in sub-Saharan Africa lose more than US $450 million in trade revenue from major staples, particularly maize and groundnuts, as a result of contamination from deadly aflatoxins. Presence of aflatoxin not only keeps tainted products out of international trade, it keeps it off local market shelves. The toxin is produced by a fungus that can easily find its way into crops at any point, especially if the crops are not properly dried during the post-harvest stages. In Zambia, the National Institute for Science and Industrial Research (NISIR), with the help of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, set up a laboratory network with particular focus on mycotoxin control, to increase food safety for both local consumers and export markets. A routine sampling found contamination in peanut butter, which proved especially important considering that peanuts are a major staple food in Zambia.

In September 2016, the Zambia Bureau of Standards, part of the country’s laboratory network, seized over 11 000 containers of aflatoxin-contaminated peanut butter from various shops in the capital city, Lusaka. During the Bureau’s routine market sampling, the peanut butter had been found to contain dangerously high levels of aflatoxin, which is a deadly and carcinogenic food poison that can cause serious illness and death, and has been suspected of contributing to stunting in children and retarding productivity of both people and animals. In addition to the threat to public health, taking contaminated products out of the food chain means less food for the people, hence, impacting food security.

After the alarm was sounded in the capital city, warnings were sent to the rest of the country and all suspected containers of peanut butter were pulled from the shelves. This incident had an impact well beyond the peanut butter recall, because of its effect on trade. In the past, Zambia already had problems with food shipments being rejected for export because they tested high in aflatoxins or other types of mycotoxins or food

The Joint FAO/IAEA Division, in its support of the food sector in Zambia, has worked with several laboratories and regulatory bodies to set a national monitoring programme. In 2017, it supported the establishment of a NISIR laboratory with specific expertise in mycotoxin sampling and testing. This included providing the proper instrumentation and training laboratory staff in use of the instruments, as well as setting up a national plan for sampling. Because farming of groundnuts and maize, which is also highly susceptible to aflatoxins, occupies a wide area of the country, satellite laboratories are being established in the countryside to do initial sampling and testing for food contaminants. If they find a problem, they send it to the NISIR laboratory for further testing and confirmation.

Food chain sampling supports producers, consumers and traders

In addition to knowing what kind of contaminant is present, it is important to know exactly where it entered the food chain and also to be able to return to the farmer or producer with information on how to prevent that contamination in the future. This type of sampling brings the food safety service much closer to the people who need it – the producers and the consumers as well as those involved in food trade. The laboratories in the network, guided by the Joint Division, are now able to use isotopic methods to analyse and test for food contaminants, and farmers’ produce can be tested in the country prior to export, so there is no fear of a shipment being rejected or sent back from an importing country.

It is not unusual for governments of developing countries to have a strong interest in protecting trade, because a good export market contributes to the national economy. However, in addition to working with the trade sector to ensure its production is fit for trade, the Zambian national monitoring system now also focuses on protecting local consumers. It brings together the people who set the national food safety regulations, regulators who implement them, laboratories that test the foods and, of course, the trained staff members who conduct the tests and have the know-how to follow up if the results are positive. Supported by the Joint Division, staff members receive training in neighbouring countries and also participate in on-site proficiency testing. As proficiency has increased, NISIR and its counterparts have added tests for other food contaminants, such as residues of animal drugs and other agrochemicals.

One positive outcome of the contaminated peanut butter incident was the strengthening of Zambia’s national food safety monitoring programme which has had a positive impact for the people of Zambia. Peanut butter is an extremely popular food in Zambia, but this particular batch contained an invisible but deadly poison. Identifying and removing such contaminants prior to market entry helps safeguard consumers and raise awareness of the usefulness of a network of testing laboratories devoted to food safety. Today it is aflatoxins in peanut butter, tomorrow it may be another contaminant in a different food product or consignment. Capacity built in the country with support of key partners ensures that the country remains vigilant.

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