Combating deadly aflatoxin in Ghana’s food, the Aflasafe GH02 solution

BY: Daniel Agbetiameh, Dr Alejandro Ortega-Beltran & Prof Richard T. Awuah
Aflasafe fights aflatoxin in Ghana’s food crops
Aflasafe fights aflatoxin in Ghana’s food crops

Food, they say, is medicine. But can this be said for many Ghanaian foods that are consumed in large quantities every day? Key staple and cash crops such as maize and groundnuts are particularly vulnerable to aflatoxin contamination.

Aflatoxins are natural poisons produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus and several other related species.

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Danger

These poisons are not only dangerous for people, but also for animals, including livestock, even in low concentrations. People and animals get aflatoxin from food and animal feed, respectively, prepared from contaminated crop produce.

Africa and the tropical world are at a distinct disadvantage: although aflatoxin-producing fungi (or moulds) are widespread in nature, they are more common in the humid and semi-arid tropics where they infect crops and contaminate the grains or kernels with their deadly toxins.

Maize, groundnuts, sorghum, chilli peppers and other crops are prone to mould infection and aflatoxin contamination in the field, and after harvest until the crops are consumed. High temperatures and end-of-season drought favour mould infection and aflatoxin formation. As do inadequate drying and poor crop storage and transportation.


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Detecting aflatoxin

Regrettably, aflatoxins are not visible to the naked eye in food, making their easy detection difficult, nor can their poison be destroyed by cooking. Nevertheless, chronic consumption of aflatoxins by people and animals results in visible ill effects on health. These include low birth- weight in infants, stunting in children, reduced immunity, liver cancer, low productivity in animals, and, in high consumption, death. Evidence on these health effects due to low but chronic consumption has been widely studied and documented in Ghana.

Evidence in poultry

Actors in the poultry industry also attest to low egg production, reduced live weight and increased mortality when birds are fed with aflatoxin-contaminated feed. There have been reports on human deaths due to acute aflatoxin poisoning (known as aflatoxicosis) in several countries, including Kenya and Tanzania.

Kenkey and aflatoxins

Ghanaians will vividly recall the sensational media reports and heated debates on “Kenkey causes cancer” that dominated the airwaves and print media in August and September 1998. Certainly, these raised awareness on aflatoxins among the citizenry at the time and further stimulated efforts for empirical research on aflatoxin and its management.

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Thereafter, several aflatoxin surveillance studies detected varying levels of the toxins in maize, groundnuts, and their derivative products. To cite but a few, aflatoxin levels reaching 4,800 parts per billion (ppb; a ppb is akin to one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool) were detected in market samples of maize in Accra.

Toxin level in fermented maize dough was found to be up to 289 ppb, Kenkey 51 ppb, groundnut 216 ppb, groundnut paste > 3,200 ppb, and Tom Brown 104 ppb.
Indeed, these aflatoxin levels exceeded the safety limit for human consumption.

Threshold

The Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) sets the threshold at 15 ppb for maize and 20 ppb for groundnuts. Critically, those contamination levels clearly demonstrate that majority of Ghanaians are exposed to unsafe aflatoxin levels in foods (Banku, Kenkey, Akple, Tuo Zaafi, Kooko, Aboolo, groundnut soup, etc.) prepared primarily from such contaminated crop products.

Aflatoxins affect not only our health but also have adverse impacts on our trade and economy. Ghana receives persistent notifications from the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, a system that reports food safety issues within the European Union, on excessive aflatoxin levels in foods including groundnut, groundnut butter, maize meal and Kenkey. The fact is, Ghanaian export and import businesses that sell food to Europe and the West regularly lose significant revenue due to aflatoxin contamination. This, almost always, goes with loss of business reputation.

One way street

Aflatoxin contamination is a one-way street: once aflatoxins move in, they cannot be removed completely from the crop or its products. These toxins are heat-stable and cannot be destroyed by cooking (although the aflatoxin-producing mould, if present, can itself be destroyed). Several tested and proven technologies such as good agronomic practices, rapid and proper drying, sorting, and grain processing limit aflatoxin contamination to some extent.
But most of these technologies are not always sufficient to ensure that foods are aflatoxin-safe, plus most are after the fact of aflatoxin having moved in.

Aflasafe

One pre-contamination strategy that has however, proven effective in protecting food crops by keeping aflatoxin out in the first place is using an all-natural, environmentally safe product called Aflasafe.

Applied whilst the crops are still in the field, Aflasafe displaces the aflatoxin-producing moulds in the field by simply first occupying and ‘colonising’ the space these poison producers would otherwise occupy.

Aflasafe was developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service (USDA–ARS) and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

GH02

The product specially tailored for Ghana is Aflasafe GH02. Aflasafe GH02 is made from four non-aflatoxin producing (atoxigenic, in technical terms) types of Aspergillus flavus native to Ghana. These native and naturally occurring friendly fungi are then coated on sterile sorghum grains which serve as both food source and carrier for the beneficial fungi. When properly applied, Aflasafe prevents crop infection and contamination, reducing aflatoxins by between 80 and 100 per cent in target crops such as maize, groundnuts, and sorghum.

With just 4 kilos of Aflasafe, a farmer can effectively protect an entire acre of maize, groundnuts or sorghum, and thereby meet the stringent international and domestic aflatoxin standards. The result is increased farmer income, and better consumer health. Aflasafe is currently available in Ghana, retailing at GH¢ 7 per kilo. The Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana has approved the use of Aflasafe GH02 to protect the country’s maize, groundnuts, and sorghum from aflatoxin. Aflasafe GH02 will be officially launched on 29th June 2018 in Accra.

The availability of Aflasafe on the Ghanaian market opens more doors for agribusiness investment, particularly in product manufacture and distribution as well as downstream businesses trading in aflatoxin-safe commodities. Currently, the product is manufactured at IITA’s headquarters in Ibadan, Nigeria.

The current retail price includes transport from Ibadan and duties. Through the Aflasafe Technology Transfer and Commercialisation initiative (ATTC), IITA, is seeking an investment partner to whom to transfer this novel technology to ensure that the product is manufactured locally and is readily made available to farmers at an economically sustainable cost.

By their stealthy nature, aflatoxins in our diets are silent killers. The onus to control aflatoxin in food falls on all of us who produce and eat food, from the farmer to the consumer. Firstly, to be aware of the perils of aflatoxin contamination in our food. Secondly, to appreciate its toll on health and trade.

And finally, to be willing, determined and consistent in implementing aflatoxin safety measures along the entire crop value chain to ensure sale and consumption of aflatoxin-safe food. Unless there is public awareness on the aflatoxin menace, and unless solutions such as Aflasafe and other proven, safe and cost-effective interventions are urgently embraced and promoted to ensure aflatoxin-safe produce from plot to plate, we may as a nation painfully discover that aflatoxin-contaminated food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun!

The writers are with the International Institute of Tropical Agricultural, (IITA) Ibadan, Nigeria and the Department of Crop and Soil Science of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi Ghana.