About Aflatoxin

Aflatoxins are naturally developed mycotoxins (toxic substances) produced by various species of Aspergillus, a fungus. They are among the most carcinogenic substances known to exist. Unfortunately, the presence of aflatoxin in food products cannot be completely eliminated; it can, however, be controlled in order to avoid causing harm to humans.

There are at least 13 known types of aflatoxins produced in nature. The most toxic is Aflatoxin B1 (produced by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus), which is found in food crops, mainly maize and groundnuts. These different species of Aspergillus fungus are common; they thrive in soil and occupy grain plants around the time of harvest. Aflatoxin contamination in grain continues to grow throughout the storage period due to favorable conditions and high levels of humidity. Therefore, aflatoxins thrive in developing countries where warm and humid, tropical, or drought-like conditions are ideal for their growth and proliferation.

Aflatoxin contamination has serious effects on human and animal health. In humans, direct ingestion of high concentrations of aflatoxin can be fatal, while chronic exposure to it may cause cancer, cirrhosis and other liver diseases, spontaneous abortion, immunosuppression, interference with micronutrient metabolism, and stunted growth. Prolonged exposure can also aggravate health conditions like HIV/AIDS, particularly in affected smallholder populations where inhabitants subsist on simple cereal-based diets and milk from their own livestock. Studies have shown that aflatoxin has similar health impacts on livestock, affecting the productivity and livelihoods of many smallholders. The Center for Disease Control has estimated that more than 4.5 billion people in developing countries are chronically exposed to aflatoxin in their diets.

While aflatoxin exposure in developed countries is regulated through production- and post-harvest-practices in addition to stringent food-safety monitoring and standards, the same cannot be asserted for exposure levels in developing countries. The application of such safety practices and strategies in the developing world is difficult for a number of reasons, including the nature of certain food-production systems like subsistence farming; a decline in available farm land, making rotations impossible; and a lack of resources, technology, and infrastructure for optimal drying and storage practices. Consequently people in developing countries are chronically exposed to mycotoxins like aflatoxin.

The need to understand effective and available aflatoxin-reducing control measures is great; the need to identify whether or not stakeholders are willing to adopt these measures is even greater.