When the Meru County government conducted a survey between 2016 and 2017 to establish the level of aflatoxin in maize in four sub-counties, the results shocked officials. Eighty-two per cent of the samples had higher levels of aflatoxin than recommended.
For control purposes, 17 composite samples were tested at an independent laboratory in Nairobi, with results showing that 19 per cent of them had more aflatoxin than recommended. To be fit for consumption, grains should not have more than 10 parts per billion.
This, officials like public health officer and Meru Community Health Strategy Coordinator Simon Rukwaro say, could be behind not just unexplained health problems, but also economic problems.
The compound which is highly carcinogenic has been linked to liver cancer. Moreover, contaminated maize cannot be bought by millers.
A University of Nairobi study on samples of flour and other foodstuff from supermarkets, markets and households, found high levels of the toxic compound.
The study conducted in Nairobi, Meru, Makueni, Machakos, Coast and western Kenya, in collaboration with Texas A&M University of the US and Agrilife Research, also found high levels of aflatoxins in animal feeds.
“The rising cases of cancer could be because people are exposed to aflatoxins in food almost every day,” said lead investigator Sheila Okoth during a two-day strategy meeting at the university last week.
“The effects of too much aflatoxin are immediate. Being exposed to low levels of aflatoxin every day for a long time could contribute to cancer,” she added.
EXPOSURE TO AFLATOXINS
Aflatoxins are produced by fungi (Aspergillus flavus) and form in grains like maize, peanuts and beans which are not dried or stored in proper conditions. They thrive in warm and moist conditions.
You can be exposed to aflatoxins if you eat grains or grain products that are contaminated or if you consume meat, milk and other animal products from animals that ate animal feed that is contaminated with aflatoxins.
Deaths from aflatoxin have been reported in Makueni, Machakos and Meru, where levels in grains are often high. Maize imported from Tanzania and Malawi has also been found to have higher levels of aflatoxin than recommended.
While there are regulations on aflatoxin management, enforcement has been a problem.
Meru County is developing a legal framework on aflatoxin management, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, to manage contamination from farm to plate.
“The legislation should look at the entire food value chain and sustainable management of food, animal feed and agriculture,” said Francis Mulaa, who is in charge of technology transfer and commercialisation at the university.