Kebs targets grain millers as aflatoxin compliance levels decline

Workers pile bags of maize at a milling company's store. [File, Standard]

The government has directed millers to submit hazard control plans approved by their top management after it emerged that aflatoxin compliance levels in the market has dropped.

Millers will also be required to have internal monitoring of aflatoxin and moisture content which should be recorded and verifiable upon request by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).

They will also submit quarterly analysis reports of their production to the standards regulator as well as ensure competent personnel are employed to be in charge of quality control.

The millers have also been warned on pre-printing packages, which confuses buyers on actual expiry dates and not informing KEBS when they change locations or close business.  

These directives have been informed by a drop in aflatoxin compliance levels among millers with data from Kebs showing the figure at 62.2 per cent in May 2024.

This is compared to October 2021 when the compliance level stood at 91.8 per cent.

In August 2023, compliance level was 73.8 per cent, 70.0 per cent in May 2023 and 63 per cent in June 2020.

This data was shared during a meeting between Kebs and millers, which also roped in Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) and Ministry of Health.

Kebs director of Quality Assurance and Inspection Geoffrey Muriira said the trend was problematic and went ahead to pronounce several directives to millers.

While he noted that some of those directives are not new, he said one of the reasons why the compliance level did go down is the approach the agency used when dealing with non-compliance, adding that previously Kebs used to issue public notices to millers which put them on toes.

“We tried to deal with millers directly but it is not working. Should we go back to public notices?” he posed.

“We may need to resort to strict measures which we wanted to move away from. We don’t want to but we might be forced.”

The drought that Kenya faced between 2020 and 2022 also played a role as the country imported grains.

In 2021, AFA was forced to ban all maize imports over aflatoxin fears following surveys done on grains sourced from Uganda and Tanzania, which determined that it was not fit for human consumption.

Fit for consumption

Dr Muriira said it is the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure the grain they source is fit for human consumption and insisted that such grain should be tested at source and before milling.

“You are not milling immediately; you are storing it. That is why we recommend that you test again,” he said.

“We can test and give compliance results but between testing and milling some contamination may occur,” he said.

Mildred Eboi, acting Manager  for Quality Assurance in charge of food division said a number of manufacturers are pre-printing packages which has consumers buying sifted flour that appears expired, and moving their premises without informing Kebs.

“Why would you have a package dated January 2024 being sold in May?” she posed. “If a miller changes location, this must be communicated to KEBS. This information is important because the permit you have indicates the location.”

She said when a miller closes shop, they should also do the same so that they are removed from the Kebs database since there could be some individuals who might use their name and standard mark to do business.

“If this happens, you will be in a fix because who will you demonstrate that you are not in production since your permit number is still active,” she said.

United Grain Millers chair Ken Nyagah explained that the reduced compliance was informed by the importation of grain particularly from Tanzania, which happened when the country was facing a drought.

He admitted that there has been some laxity but said it was not fair when the bulk of compliance is put on millers.

“We have a lot of players in the value chain like farmers, transporters and aggregators. Let us not point the blame to millers but widen the net,” he said.

“I am not defending millers. Compliance is a must but there are areas that Kebs and AFA should (also) look into.”

One of such areas he noted is the lack of uncontaminated maize, which makes sourcing of grain for millers a challenge.

“We are left with small areas where we can get maize that is not contaminated. That is Uasin Gishu,” he said adding that grain sourced from Tanzania and Uganda most times is contaminated.

“Millers are straining especially on where to get good maize. I know of some who have scaled down or even closed down because they cannot access good maize.” 

He said Kebs needs to share data on compliance with millers so that those pockets where contaminated grain is identified can be looked into further to determine the cause.

The other area of concern pointed out by Nyagah is the emergence of micro millers (posho mills) who are not on the radar of regulators like large millers.

“Anybody processing food crop needs to be registered,” insisted AFA Crop Inspectorate Director Ferdinand Masinde.

Enforce laws

He said the authority is working with county inspectors through capacity building so that they can enforce these laws in their locality.

“When it comes to aflatoxin, quite a number do not comply –not only the imported but also locally grown,” he said.

“Several stakeholders are not aware of the standards and requirements.”

He added that the quality of grain starts from production. This means if the area where the grain has been planted is infected or is close to a garbage, mining or waste disposal site, then probably the harvest will be contaminated.

He also pointed out the practice where farmers harvest their grains premature when prices in the market start dropping saying it is not recommended.

East African Grain Council Country Manager Jacinta Mwau said aflatoxin contamination should not be a “death sentence” to grain.

She said they are working on a possible decontamination machine in partnership with University of Nairobi, which is currently in the testing stage.

“We are at the tests stage to see how much it will cost to decontaminate a tonne or kilogramme of maize.”

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