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Reducing the risk of contaminated food in Malawi and other countries

Aflatoxins are toxic compounds which can be found in foods such as maize and groundnuts; long-term exposure to them can lead to children becoming stunted or underweight and at increased risk of disease because the immune system becomes impaired. High levels of the toxins also damage the liver, with the World Health Organization estimating four-fifths of liver cancers are related to aflatoxin consumption.

The toxins are caused by fungi or mould which grows on food, particularly in countries which have a tropical climate with high temperatures and humidity. This means foods in many sub-Saharan African countries are prone to being contaminated. In West Africa for example, stunted or underweight children have been found to contain levels of aflatoxins 30%-40% higher in their bodies than in children of normal height and weight.

One fair trade non-governmental organisation is calling for better checking of foods, particularly of groundnuts/peanuts. Twin, which works with farmers in 18 countries, says contamination often occurs because of poor harvesting practices, where crops are not effectively dried and stored. When groundnuts are dried well immediately after harvest, levels of aflatoxins are low. But during the busy harvest season, farmers often don’t have the time to remove pods from the plants, allowing the fungi to grow. The groundnut haulms (crop leftovers) are also fed to animals, leading to contamination of milk, which particularly affects children.

Speaking to The Guardian, a spokesperson for Twin said that “concentrating on food security and nutrition are not enough”, when the issue of food safety is also key. During its work in Malawi, the organisation found that 60% of groundnuts, which are informally traded and consumed locally, are not tested for aflatoxins. Something as simple as the introduction of cheap driers and better storage can help farmers address the problem. Twin has also recently set up ‘Afri-Nut Ltd’, which will bring the processing of groundnuts under the control of producers in order to generate additional income for farmers and address contamination problems.

The NGO says it would like to see the issue of food safety raised more widely and particularly by the UK’s prime minister. David Cameron will be co-chairing the UN committee responsible for the post-2015 development agenda, as well as leading G8 meetings in 2013 which will look at food security and nutrition. Development agencies are also gearing up for this weekend’s Hunger Summit to be chaired by David Cameron, where world leaders will come together to discuss global food security and nutrition issues.

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