What you need to know about aflatoxins

Each time we eat food that contains aflatoxin poisons, the toxic nucleotides (gene components) of aflatoxin’s DNA attach themselves to the host DNA and forms adducts. The host DNA will then not produce (replicate) the normal protein, but altered DNA with the aflatoxin adducts. This will continue for the many replications that will produce several such abnormal genes. This is how cancerous cells are built up in the body and perhaps a reason why aflatoxins are referred to as carcinogenic.

If you keenly observe the pathogenesis of aflatoxins, you will appreciate the importance of hygiene in handling food. One of the traits of microbes Aspergilus flavus and Aspergilus parasiticus strains of fungi, which are responsible for the release of a toxic biological metabolite called the aflatoxin, is that they undergo rapid cell division.

The ideal condition for this quick multiplication is moisture content in grains and other food materials. Many animal feeds manufacturers use materials such as maize cobs, which are crushed and mixed with other nutrients to come up with a formula for animals.

The unfortunate bit about it is that most of the times, maize cobs are not kept in hygienic conditions. Because of their large moisture contents, they facilitate the breeding of lots of aflatoxins in them. These ‘living poisons’ find their way into the animal feeds.

When the animals consume the contaminated foods, the DNA of aflatoxins form adducts within the animal’s DNA. This means that meat, milk and eggs from such animals would have had some cancerous (deleterious) genes that would inflict cancer to anyone who feeds on such. This is why it is important to ensure that grains, especially maize, are kept in dry places.

Much as we applaud the Ministry of Agriculture for introduction of biological control products like aflasafe that would curb aflatoxin in the fields, the government should also invest in electric driers to ensure that any maize consignment brought to the National Cereals and Produce Board is dried thoroughly before storage.

Most importantly is for soil experts to find a way of detoxifying the Kenyan farms, whose soil is reported to be contaminated with lots of aflatoxins. Banning maize flour products after they have reached the shelves is a knee-jerk reaction that cannot save lives.