The head of the African Union Commission (AUC) has urged countries in the region to tackle the impact of aflatoxins.

Moussa Faki Mahamat made the comments at the opening of the third Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) Partnership Platform Meeting (PPM) in Senegal earlier this month. Faki said given the wide array of food safety challenges the AUC had to prioritize interventions and decided to focus on aflatoxin control.

“The impact of aflatoxins is devastating. They account for 30 percent of all liver cancer cases worldwide, with more than 40 percent recorded in Africa,” Faki said. “They are also associated with immunosuppression and stunting in children. In addition, many of our states have experienced cases of acute aflatoxin poisoning, resulting in the significant loss of lives.”

Faki emphasized the need for collective action to address the health risks posed by the mycotoxin which also negatively impacts agricultural and trade sectors of the continent. He thanked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nestlé and United States Government for support.

Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins in crops such as maize, sorghum and groundnuts which represent major staples in many African countries. They are produced by the mold Aspergillus flavus and related species and can cause destruction of contaminated crops.

It is estimated that Africa loses up to $700 million annually in lost exports because agricultural commodities such as maize, groundnuts and spices contain aflatoxin levels unacceptable for European and other markets.

“We are gathered here to deliberate on a subject — food safety — that hardly makes it into the headlines of the African media. It has, unfortunately, not yet mobilized public opinion, although it is of paramount importance for Africa,” said Faki.

“The prevailing mentality is that this issue ‘concerns mainly rich countries’, that ‘it is a luxury’. It is, therefore, not surprising that the focus in Africa has been more on the production of food in sufficient quantities rather than on its quality.

“Yet, food safety encompasses every dimension of development on the continent. The associated challenges have serious consequences for the health of our citizens and their productivity, and place an enormous burden on public health services. They are a hindrance to intra-African trade and threaten the competitiveness of our agricultural products on the world market. They result in substantive post-harvest losses, thus reducing the availability of food.”

Aflatoxins hamper access by African farmers to international markets, because their products do not meet the required standards. The continent thus loses at least $700 million per year in export earnings, Faki said.

“Aflatoxin-contaminated products represent the largest percentage of African agricultural products rejected by the European Union. At the continental level, the implementation of the commitment to increase trade in agricultural products and services is hampered by the absence of common standards for food safety.”

Faki added African countries are vulnerable because of climatic conditions, the lack of harmonized standards and adequate policies, old existing technical and scientific means and low sensitization to the danger.

The African Union is scheduled to host the first International Conference on Food Safety at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in February 2019 with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and World Health Organization.

Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, Prime Minister of Senegal, reiterated the country’s commitment to mitigating aflatoxins.

Senegal is one of six pilot countries that the AUC’s PACA secretariat is working with in Africa. The other countries are Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, The Gambia and Uganda.

AUC commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, Josefa Sacko, said it would replicate the PACA country-led approach in the six pilots to the rest of the continent.

“The commission has been supporting the pilot countries in developing and implementing a country-led aflatoxin control action plan to address the aflatoxin problem in a coordinated and impactful manner. The results have so far been remarkable and we would like to replicate the experience in all the 55 countries of Africa,” she said.

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