Why Collaboration Is Critical To Post-harvest Aflatoxin Risk Management

05/06/2020

Dr. Guangtao Zhang

Head of Research,Mars Global Food Safety Center

To many readers, the impact of aflatoxins is familiar, but it bears repeating. Each year around 4.5 billion people are exposed to aflatoxins, which are known to contaminate 25 per cent of the world’s crop area. The health impacts are devastating; as well as stunting, damage to the immune system, and maternal anaemia, it is estimated to play a part in up to 28 per cent of all liver cancers globally (Liu et al., 2012). The health impacts are just one of the challenges they pose, and climate change and an increasingly globalized food supply chain means they are likely to affect more areas of the world over time (Cotty et al, 2007).

At Mars, we have accumulated a lot of experience in operational food safety and supply chain management and a long history of collaboration and innovation; as a global food manufacturer, we believe we have a clear responsibility to help raise the bar in food safety. However, we also believe that no one entity can tackle the food safety challenges impacting the global food supply chain alone. That is why we are taking a truly collaborative approach, one rooted in fostering mutual sharing and collaboration. At the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC), opened in 2015, we work on a range of programs aimed at tackling challenges impacting the global food supply chain, including mycotoxin risk management. This program is focused on developing novel partnerships and breakthrough management strategies to tackle mycotoxin head on, starting with aflatoxins because of the serious health threat they pose. None of this work can be managed single-handedly, and our goal is to share knowledge and build connections to enable critical collaboration. 

Global events are encouraging the right conversations and opportunities for collaboration. In 2019, the mycotoxin issue was featured in the plenary session at the China International Food Safety and Quality (CIFSQ) conference in China. There was very strong representation from prominent leaders and food safety experts from across the world in academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), regulators, and industry, highlighting the importance of mycotoxin mitigation worldwide. The World Mycotoxin Forums in Belfast and in Asia also saw strong representation from country-level regulators, industry and academia.

Arguably, there is more to do. In the field of mycotoxins, there is a strong need to translate research solutions into simple, accessible, practicable tools that can be implemented at farm level and that’s where a multi-stakeholder approach is key. Involvement from the food industry and inter-government organizations plays an important role in collectively raising awareness and raising the bar in food safety. If we work together to help create the right channels for open discussion and bring together leading experts with those who have critical insights into communities seeking practical, affordable solutions, that’s where we can make a real difference. 

It was a privilege to attend the Strategic Planning Workshop to Address Mycotoxins in Food & Feed in Nepal led by Kansas State University and USAID last year. In my view, one of the key reasons this workshop was such a success was because it tapped into Helen Keller International, a wonderful organization with a long-standing presence in Nepal. This meant that we were able to connect with a substantial network of farmers in a short space of time – a critical step in understanding what’s truly needed and helpful at the farm level.

On a similar note, the Mars GFSC was honored to help support a project helping to create a new mycotoxin laboratory at National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in Nepal, investigating the sources and causes of mycotoxin contamination in order to seek innovative solutions to address this serious issue within the Nepali food and feed supply.

The lab, which opened in November 2018, focuses on understanding the problem of high levels of aflatoxin present in foods commonly consumed in Nepali households. The facility was set up by the USAID-funded (the US Agency for International Development), Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHLIL), Kansas State University and The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control (Government of Nepal). As a Mars GFSC team, we were able to share insights into mycotoxin lab design, based on our own laboratory and research center experience. As industry contributors, we were also able to recommend key pieces of equipment and facilitate the training of laboratory analysts and supervisors on laboratory methodologies within a Mars laboratory. The laboratory design and training can be deployed at other similar facilities in the region, as well as other countries operating under the US Government’s Feed the Future initiative.

Both examples make clear the need for collaboration and demonstrate the tangible difference that a multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder approach can make. The reality is that the aflatoxin challenge is much bigger than any single organization or sector. Arguably, the point where critical, lasting change happens is through collaboration and the exchange of knowledge, insights and ideas.

Overall, it is very encouraging to see the progress being made in understanding mycotoxins and exploring risk management solutions.  That said, there is still much more to be accomplished.

We will continue to share new insights, facilitate dialogue and help enable connections between groups and communities to help manage and mitigate mycotoxins, to help ensure safe food for all and a better world tomorrow. Above all, we’ll continue to do what we can to help enable collaboration.

 

This post also appeared on Agrilinks on May.6, 2020.