The Mars Global Food Safety Center Collaborates with Global Partners to Tackle the Mycotoxin Challenge in Nepal

Mother & Child

The early years of a child’s life provide the best opportunity to nourish physical and brain development.

Poor nutrition can lead to stunting and have long-lasting consequences for learning and future productivity (Victora et al., 2008).  Stunted growth refers to the failure to reach one’s full potential for growth. But is not just about height. When a child’s growth is compromised through stunting, this signals that they have been deprived of nutrients for linear growth and the development of vital organs.

Scientific evidence suggests stunting could be caused by consuming foods contaminated with aflatoxin – a highly poisonous mycotoxin produced by the Aspergillus fungi, which impacts at least one quarter of crops around the world.

Most human exposure comes from the consumption of contaminated nuts, grains and their derived products. Breast milk can be a vehicle for the transfer of aflatoxins to babies, since the aflatoxins contained in food ingested by the mother may pass into her milk. Eggs and cow milk can also be similarly contaminated.

Poor diet is a serious problem in Nepal, where the high rate of chronic malnutrition and stunting among children is a serious concern. In the mountain region, where there is a shortage of safe food, poverty is so severe that five out of every six children are stunted (Bhurtel and Ali).

Reducing stunting in children increases their chances of reaching their full development potential, which in turn has a positive impact on families, communities and the country’s ability to thrive.

A state-of-the-art mycotoxin laboratory set up at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in Nepal is working towards identifying the causes of aflatoxin contamination in the Nepalese diet in order to develop innovative solutions to eliminate these deadly toxins from the food supply chain. The laboratory was created by Dr. Jagger Harvey and the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, Kansas State University (PHLIL), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Nepal Development Research Institute, the University of Nebraska Lincoln and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, with input and insights from the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) in Beijing, China.

The facility is a critical infrastructure component of a large mycotoxin assessment project which began in response to a survey by The Feed the Future Nutrition Innovation Lab (NIL) at Tufts University. The study found potentially damaging mycotoxin exposure among pregnant and lactating women in Banke, a district in Nepal with high rates of stunting.

Early results from the laboratory have been promising. Aflatoxin levels have now been analysed in hundreds of food samples collected from Nepalese households, markets and animal feed samples. Contaminated maize and groundnuts have been identified as two of the biggest aflatoxin contributors within the Nepalese diet, followed by dried chillies and soy-balls (medium contribution) and rice and wheat-based weaning foods (low contribution). The Nepalese government is now using these findings to design policies and program activities to tackle aflatoxins head on.

These results were shared in August 2019 at a PHLIL hosted workshop: ‘Building a Better Response’ in Dhulikhel, Nepal, which brought together food safety experts from around the world to facilitate a collaborative effort to seek ways to mitigate and ultimately eradicate mycotoxins from the food supply chain. The event was an opportunity to exchange knowledge, expertise, valuable insights and opportunities to partner in science and technology projects that seek to generate new solutions to help mitigate aflatoxin toxicity and food waste.

Resolving this challenge will mark a cornerstone in mycotoxin research. Each year around 4.5 billion people are exposed to aflatoxins, which are known to contaminate 25 per cent of the world’s food supply. 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 28 per cent of liver cancers globally.

The Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) team helped to design the mycotoxin lab based on its own laboratory and research center experience. The design represents a blueprint that can be deployed at other Nepalese labs, as well as countries operating under the US Government’s Feed the Future initiative, a network which brings together the brightest minds in academia and industry to tackle the food safety challenges of a growing global population. The Mars GFSC is also credited with recommending key pieces of equipment and training of Nepalese lab employees within a Mars laboratory in Hyderabad, India, so they can train lab analysts and supervisors on laboratory methodologies.

Nepal Lab Opening Group Photo

Dr. Jagger Harvey, PHLIL Director , says: ‘The global nature of the mycotoxin challenge means that the global food safety community is becoming increasingly involved in working together to investigate causes and seek innovative solutions to help eradicate them.

‘We are casting our net wide, prospecting across the entire research and development community in the private sector, to find innovative ways to mitigate and ultimately eradicate mycotoxins from the global food supply chain.’

Dr. Abigail Stevenson, Director at the Mars Global Food Safety Center said: “We are immensely proud to work with PHLIL, USAID and the Nepalese government to help tackle the challenge of mycotoxins. 

“At Mars we believe industry has a crucial role to play in helping all stakeholders in the food supply chain operate to the same level of knowledge, identify risks and work together to create solutions. The opening of the new mycotoxin laboratory in Nepal is a significant step forward. However, our work on this subject will continue as there is still much more to be accomplished.”