News from Zambia that Zimbabwean peanut butter was recalled from retailers should be sending ripples of concern through consumers here. 11,000 one litre tubs were taken off the shelves after the Zambia Bureau of Standards found excessive levels of aflatoxins. The peanut butter in question, from one of our more trusted brands Lyons, is still on the shelves of Zimbabwean supermarkets.
But what are aflatoxins and should we be worried? Most consumers haven’t even heard of them, yet aflatoxins are produced by the Aspergillus fungus that is present in most soils. Affecting food crops such as maize and groundnuts, they can contaminate during cultivation, harvesting, storage and processing. B1 (AFB1) is the most potent of the aflatoxins. Chronic low-level exposure to this aflatoxin is associated with increased risk of liver cancer, malnutrition and impaired imune function (Njoroge et al. 2016). It can also cause stunting in children.
The Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, an organisation working on reducing exposure to aflatoxins, says on its website that “millions of people living in Africa are exposed to high, unsafe levels of aflatoxins through their diet.” Zimbabwe is no different as both maize and groundnuts are important crops here. A study carried out by Mupunga et al, (2014) warns that peanuts and peanut butter in Zimbabwe are contaminated by very high levels of aflatoxins.
The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) says that a tenth of cultivated land in Zimbabwe is under groundnuts, with 36% of small-scale farmers growing them. Making peanut butter is one way of adding value to the crop, it is a nutritious as well as delicious addition to a meal, but if aflatoxins are present in excessive levels, then it could be dangerous.
Given all of the above, and the fact that I love the stuff, I wanted to find out what steps are being taken to ensure that our locally made peanut butter is safe. On the day that I went to Pick n Pay there were five different Zimbabwean brands available on the shelf, including Lyons. Contacting them proved to be somewhat arduous. Some of them had scant contact information. But contact them I did.
Each had a different approach to the issue. One told me that the groundnuts that they imported from South Africa to make peanut butter had been tested to ensure they were not genetically modified, but they hadn’t tested for aflatoxins in some time. They said that when they buy groundnuts locally, they never test for aflatoxins. Another, which has in the past been recalled in the UK for levels of aflatoxins considered excessive there, said that it is very confident about its peanuts, its suppliers are vetted and the finished product is tested by independent laboratories.
Lyons’managing director Tracey Mutaviri refuted the findings of the Zambia Bureau of Standards and said that while large quantities of their peanut butter had been recalled in Zambia, they tested that same consignment at laboratories here and had not found it to be over acceptable levels. In over 25 years of exporting peanut butter to Zambia, Mutaviri says “this was the first time quality issues have been raised. Our testing methods and facilities have remained the same over these years.”
Most satisfactory was the response from Brian Fearon of Associated Food Zimbabwe, the company behind the Mama’s brand, who told me, “If we are not going to feed this to our children, then we don’t produce it.” Like Lyons they get their nuts from Malawi. They work to the EU standards on aflatoxins and Fearon happily forwarded me his most recent test results.
So then it was on to the regulators and the laboratories, the bodies that are supposed to be protecting us, as consumers, from eating bad food. This proved an even harder task and once reached, many of the people I spoke to weren’t able to give me a public statement. Others were still coming up with their position on the matter as Harare News went to press.
Yet what came out of my conversations is that while some testing is going on, not all producers are testing their peanut butter. There is also concern that the standards are outdated and levels regarded as excessive in Zimbabwe are far higher than the levels accepted by the EU. This means that peanut butter that passes as safe here wouldn’t be acceptable if exported. A source at one of the independent laboratories told me, “People are only concentrating on what is going out. They are not focusing on what WE are eating.” This is corroborated in the Mupunga et al. study, which says “On the country level, the least contaminated, best quality food is usually exported, leaving the highly contaminated food to be consumed by a population already at risk.”
The supermarkets do offer another level of protection for consumers: before they will stock a product they demand to see some quality standard. This is provided by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ), who carry out random samples, but the question remains whether the standards that they are following for peanut butter are stringent enough. Unfortunately the Director General of SAZ was out of the country and was unable to comment.
And sadly, these levels of protection are not afforded to the jars produced on a domestic level. As the Traditional and Organic Food Festival in October revealed, there are many other small-scale peanut butter producers out there. Are they equipped to handle aflotoxins? One organisation that I spoke to in the Eastern part of Zimbabwe says that they are not managing aflatoxins well. He says that while they know that it is important, they currently don’t have the facilities for testing. Another, closer to Harare hadn’t even heard of aflatoxins. Whilst his farming practises are good, which goes a long way towards reducing contamination, this lack of awareness about aflatoxins doesn’t instil confidence in his product. And what of the micro brands produced, say, by your friend’s aunty, who’s trying to supplement her income by grinding some nuts? Is that safe to eat?
Does this mean that we should stop eating local peanut butter altogether? ICRISAT says no. Along with other partners, including NGOs and government extension workers, they have been working hard to try to reduce the levels of aflatoxins present in the Zimbabwean groundnut crop. And this starts with the farmers. Through outreach and videos, they provide guidance on the spacing of plants, on sourcing seeds, on how to reduce stress on the plants and adhering to the right harvesting times. “Removing shriveled, broken, mouldy, small nuts, insect damaged nuts too, will all reduce aflatoxin contamination up to 90%,” says Sam Njoroge who works in Malawi where the core of ICRISAT’s work on aflatoxins is based. Blanching (removing the red skins) before making the peanut butter can also help.
Importantly, ICRISAT has also been developing a low-cost test that can help farmers, and indeed consumers, to very quickly determine if there is contamination. This should be available next year.
This is by no means a ‘kill peanut butter’ investigation. It is a much too important nutrient source for many Zimbabweans and a source of income for many farmers. Steps just need to be taken to ensure the levels of aflatoxins present are acceptable, that the standards are adequate and that they are followed by all who produce it for us, from seed to plate.
This is a sentiment shared by ICRISAT’s Zimbabwe representative Kizito Mazvimavi who says, “In the last two years we have upped our game and are making a bit of noise on the issue of aflatoxins. We need to be serious about health and nutrition and we need to raise awareness about controlling contamination of groundnuts, an important commodity for us.”
My half eaten jar of peanut butter, sitting on the shelf since I started writing this article, is now back in action. I was relieved that, of all the local brands, I had happened to choose Mama’s for my daughter’s sandwiches.