The role of mycotoxin contamination in nutrition: The aflatoxin story

Over the past decade, there has been increasing recognition that the quantity of food alone guarantees neither food security nor adequate nutrition as measured by metrics such as hunger, malnutrition, and stunting. Increasingly, policy and decision makers understand the need to include nutritional aspects into improvements of food systems. However, not as fully recognized is that unsafe, contaminated foods thwart these efforts and maintain an unacceptable status quo in food insecurity, poverty, and a range of health-related problems. All of this makes sustainable development more challenging. In 2010, foodborne hazards caused 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths across the world, with 40 percent of this disease burden occurring among children under five years of age (Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition 2016). Yet food safety has become an important precondition for access to global food markets and, increasingly, for high-value domestic markets in developing countries. Contamination of food with mycotoxins is a prominent food safety challenge in tropical regions. In Africa, the most important mycotoxins from both a human health and an economic perspective are aflatoxins and fumonisins (IARC 2015). Much of the public- and private-sector’s attention has focused on aflatoxin due to its high pre- and postharvest contamination potential, which causes widespread occurrence in diverse food matrices, and its extreme toxicological significance to humans and animals, with impacts on food safety, nutrition, public health, and markets and income. Aflatoxin is a potent liver cancer–causing chemical, and there is mounting evidence that aflatoxin interferes with nutrient absorption and plays a role in inhibiting immune system function, potentially retarding child growth (Turner et al. 2012). With respect to food processing and trade, much of African produce is affected by aflatoxin, diminishing the region’s access to high-value export markets. Food-processing firms serving emerging domestic high-value markets are also testing for the contaminant in the production chain. This chapter focuses on the nutritional and economic consequences of aflatoxin contamination in Africa and on the opportunities for its management.