- Aflatoxin usually develop on food such as maize and groundnuts, in regions or countries with climates of high temperature and humidity.
- Aflatoxin is a type of mycotoxin, which result from fungal growth. This is normally caused by the improper drying or re-wetting of crops.
- Once aflatoxin occurs, it cannot be eliminated without making food unsafe for human consumption.
- High aflatoxin levels can be prevented by improving farming, storage and transportation practices.
WFP sets quality requirements for the commodities it procures to ensure that beneficiaries receive food which is safe for consumption. The same standards are applied to purchases from all suppliers, be they smallholder farmers or large companies, without exception. This has posed a challenge for P4P, as smallholder farmers often lack the knowledge and resources to produce crops that meet these standards. Plus, smallholders are sometimes located in difficult-to-access rural areas where inspection companies and local laboratories may have a limited presence.
The prevalence of aflatoxin, a poisonous chemical compound linked to liver cancer if consumed regularly over an extended period, poses a particular threat to food safety. Aflatoxin generally develops on crops such as maize or groundnuts due to insufficient drying, as the presence of excess moisture allows the growth of aflatoxin-producing moulds. This can be prevented through appropriate post-harvest handling techniques. At an early stage of the P4P pilot, purchases from P4P-supported smallholders highlighted the need to address the root cause of quality control problems. This triggered the creation of WFP’s Food Quality and Safety unit in November 2009.
Preventative and proactive approaches
Aflatoxin poses a concern because of the large volume of maize procured through P4P. In order to address this problem, a field testing kit called the Blue Box was developed in collaboration with P4P Guatemala. The project was launched after several incidents in which commodities supplied by P4P-supported farmers in Guatemala were rejected by WFP because they did not meet quality requirements. The Blue Box was designed to screen grain quality and detect problems such as the presence of aflatoxin at an early stage, therefore reducing rejections.
Each Blue Box contains grain sampling and grading equipment, a moisture metre, an aflatoxin test kit and other supplies to allow on-the-spot screening of food quality parameters and grading at any stage of the supply chain. The Blue Box has been effectively used by farmers’ organizations, storage facilities, and WFP procurement. Since 2011, 26 WFP Country Offices, 14 of which are P4P pilot countries, have begun incorporating the Blue Box into their programming.
In order to address quality issues, both early detection and prevention are necessary. While the Blue Box facilitates early detection, capacity development is vital to preventing the development of food quality problems. Along with training on how to use the equipment, P4P and partners have provided training sessions in post-harvest handling. Topics include drying, sorting, storage and transport, as well as inspection and testing. Additionally, P4P has supported the provision of equipment and infrastructure to improve post-harvest handling, such as improved storage facilities and drying equipment on a cost-sharing basis.
The field testing kit was originally named the "Blue Box" because the equipment was housed in a blue container. Today it is no longer blue, but the name is still commonly used.
Positive results for farmers and governments
The early detection of quality problems has reduced the number of rejected deliveries and led to savings for farmers, who then do not pay unnecessary transportation costs for commodities that might ultimately be rejected. In addition, the Blue Box, as well as related food quality and safety initiatives, have raised awareness about the risks of aflatoxin. When Bornwell Kaunga, a farmers’ organization manager from Malawi, spoke at P4P’s fifth Annual Consultation, he described how increased awareness about food safety has been vital to his community. He shared the story of one mother, who previously sold the healthy part of the grain while feeding the diseased parts to her children. After learning about the dangers of this practice, Bornwell quoted her as saying, "This is one of the most important things we have learned, I am now able to keep clean grain in my house and that gives me happiness in my heart.” Through these efforts, more farmers have also learned that quality crops can generate higher prices.
WFP’s increased advocacy for the enforcement of national quality standards, the establishment of quality monitoring protocols, and the adoption of best practices contributes to the global agenda to address major food quality and safety issues. This also enables WFP to take part in broader discussions about global health policies. In South Sudan, the Blue Box launch, as well as dialogue around aflatoxin, catalysed improvements in the national laboratory capacity, and initiated systematic screening of local maize produce. The Blue Box also enabled WFP to increasingly influence and contribute to local policy design and execution. For example, in Ethiopia, aflatoxin testing is not required by national standards, but thanks to WFP’s extensive collaboration with the government, it has been endorsed systematically through support to Cooperative Unions. Similarly, in Kenya following severe aflatoxin outbreaks, WFP has collaborated with the government to increase public awareness, improve post-harvest handling and storage, and increase testing capacity.
Lessons learned about equipment & training
The challenges faced by the WFP Food Quality and Safety unit, and the Blue Box initiative in particular, have generated lessons and technical knowledge about how to deliver training effectively, and what kind of equipment is most suitable in the field. Comprehensive guidance has been developed to increase the effectiveness of Blue Box training sessions. The Food Quality and Safety unit has found that that in order to be most effective, hands-on training should be carried out by WFP staff in the local language immediately after the delivery of the kit. Lessons learned indicate that participants benefit most when specific individuals are assigned to take responsibility for quality control, undergoing training and using the Blue Box tools. Efforts to improve food quality were most effective when combined with pre-existing national policies, standards and market infrastructure. Incentives, such as higher margins for quality crops, proved particularly effective.
Aflatoxins: Finding solutions for improved food safety - IFPRI Series