ADDIS ABABA (HAN) November 15, 2015. Public Diplomacy & regional Security. The milk market in Addis Ababa and its surrounding is experiencing hard times at the moment as producers and collectors see demands plummet after a research revealed aflatoxin contamination in milk.
The smallholder dairy farmers, whose daily lives depend on the sale of milk and other dairy products, are hard hit by the fall in demand and are bewildered by the whole thing while powdered milk importers see a corresponding rise in sales. Mikias Sebsibe of The Reporter investigates the impact of the sharp decline of demand for local milk on smallholder dairy farmers and collectors, core findings of the research and the health risks associated as well as future steps to be taken.
On route from Addis Ababa to the town of Sendafa in the Oromia Special Zone, some 30km north of the capital, a small pick-up truck is parked on the roadside in the expansive green landscape in the early hours of Friday 13 November. A group of men are pouring milk into a silver metal can collected fresh from a dairy farm nearby as aspiring young athletes pace up and down the asphalted road in group.
The pick-up truck stops at several other smallholder dairy farms in the area collecting milk. And then, it will head to the capital where the milk is supplied to cafeterias and kiosks. But this time, collectors are forced to limit the amount of milk they buy from farmers due to a sharp decline in demand as a result of a research finding of milk contamination in Addis Ababa and its surrounding.
“The rumor has been circulating since June,” Dereje Dadi, milk collector, told The Reporter. “As a result, the demand was showing gradual decline ever since and declined dramatically the past two weeks after media picked up the story.”
Dereje says he used to collect up to 800 liters of milk per day which he buys for 13 birr a liter and offers the Addis Ababa market holding a two birr margin of profit. Now, he has reduced the amount of milk he collects by more than a half.
“If I take 300 liters of milk now to the Addis Ababa market, I return with half of it. I am operating at a loss,” Dereje, a breadwinner for a family of ten, moans donning his cowboy hat. “The profit will not be that much even if the milk is churned into butter or I make cheese out of it. In fact, I am running out of storage space.”
Dairy farmers in Addis Ababa and its surrounding are equally affected. Teshome Mengistu is one of the major producers of milk from the town of Sendafa. From his 13 high-yielding cow breeds, he produces 160 liters of milk.
“A month or so ago, you would have seen a huge tussle for milk here,” says Teshome pointing to the half-closed metal gate of his dairy farm. “Things have changed the past week and just a few days ago, the milk collector returned with 100 liters of milk he purchased and dumped it here.”
Although reports of milk contamination in Addis Ababa became a major topic of discussion for the city dwellers this week, most dairy farmers and milk collectors have noticed the decline in demand months ago. That time coincides with the publication of a research finding on Food Control, an international journal on food safety and process control, in July.
The research titled ‘Aflatoxin contamination of milk and dairy feeds in the Greater Addis Ababa milk shed’ was done by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The research was the first of its kind to be conducted in Ethiopia.
ILRI researchers analyzed milk and dairy feed samples collected from milk producers and collectors in Addis Ababa, Sendafa, Debre Zeit, Sululta and Sebeta to detect and quantify aflatoxin contamination, a naturally occurring contaminant of food and animal feed.
Cows that consume a feed contaminated with aflatoxin B1, a highly potent carcinogen, excrete aflatoxin M1 in their milk. Consumption of high level of aflatoxin M1 is considered a risk to human health including liver cancer in adults and stunting children’s growth, according to researches.
As global milk consumption continue to grow, ILRI has been conducting research on milk in East Africa – including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – and India.
“At ILRI, we want to help smallholder dairy farmers protect the health of their livestock and dairy products such as milk. We also want to see consumers getting dependable and healthy milk and other dairy products,” Azage Tegegne (PhD), one of the researchers, explains the aim of the research.
Azage and his team analyzed 110 milk samples (up to 50 milliliter) and found all the milk samples contaminated with aflatoxin M1 with contamination levels ranging between 0.028 and 4.98 microgram per liter.
The result showed that only nine (8.2 percent) milk samples contained less than or equal to the stringent European Union (EU) parameters set in 2010 for aflatoxin contamination of 0.05 microgram per liter. Furthermore, 29 (26.3 percent) milk samples exceeded the US standard of 0.5 microgram per liter, ten times lenient compared to the EU parameter.
And out of a total of 156 feed samples analyzed, 16 (10.2 percent) contained aflatoxin B1 level less than or equal to 10 microgram per kilogram while 41 of the samples contained levels exceeding 100 microgram per kilogram. The EU standard sets maximum aflatoxin B1 level of two micrograms per kilogram versus the US standard of 20 microgram per kilogram.
As news of the research’s finding filtered to the wider public via internet including social media, Addis Ababans reacted by slashing their milk consumption with some opting for imported powdered milk. At one conference hall at Hilton Addis Hotel on Tuesday, participants were seen refusing to drink milk during their tea break.
Azage says that was a result of misinterpretation of the research finding.
“The research was interpreted in a manner that exceeded our expectation,” Azage says. “Because of that the sector has been affected but nowhere in our research have we concluded that people should stop drinking milk or resort to powdered milks.”
Others, such as Bewket Seraw (DVM), veterinary services directorate director at the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development, point out limitations of the research.
“When there are huge gaps between the variable of the samples analyzed [ranging between 0.028 and 4.98 micrograms per liter of aflatoxin M1 contamination in milk], the researchers should have relied on the median result,” Bewket argues.
The ILRI research puts the median result at 0.094 micrograms per liter of aflatoxin contamination in milk.
“That is not far from even the EU standard,” Bewket says while also maintaining that the researchers should have relied on the US standard.
“Ethiopia and EU are far apart with regards to per capita milk consumption, using the EU standard to gauge the health risk of aflatoxin is wrong,” he argues.
Despite having the largest cattle population in Africa of 49 million, milk productivity and consumption remains very low in Ethiopia. The country’s per capita milk consumption stands at a mere 19.5 liters per annum, lower than the African and world average. In comparison, Kenya and Sudan have milk per capita consumption of 120 and 180 liters per annum.
“So, when we talk of aflatoxin contamination we need to take into account our consumption level because it is the cumulative effect of aflatoxin contamination that becomes a health risk,” Bewket says arguing that the current level of aflatoxin contamination revealed by the ILRI research will not be a health risk for consumers.
The ILRI research has found that the animal feed noug (Niger seed) cake, a byproduct from noug oil factories and indigenous to Ethiopia, to be the major culprit of aflatoxin contamination in milk. Analysis of the samples revealed that the contamination levels of aflatoxin B1 in noug cake ranged between 290 and 397 microgram per kilogram, far beyond the US standard of 20 micrograms per kilogram, while other feed components had relatively low levels.
“Noug cake in animal feed is a protein supplement which is a good thing but the problem comes in the manner it is stored,” explains Azege. “With high temperature and moisture, molds grow on the noug cake.”
And hence the research suggests risk assessment of aflatoxins in noug seed and its byproducts, especially noug cake, in other food chains and more awareness activities.
But dairy farmers like Teshome say “it has been years” since they last used noug cake as animal feed.
“You would not even find noug cake in the market because it goes for export,” insists Teshome as he walks into his animal feed storage made of corrugated iron sheets but well ventilated.
“As you can see my store meets the standard,” he says pointing to sacks of animal feeds piled on top of each other on the concrete floor covered with plastic.
His fully stocked animal feed includes sacks of pea hull, silage as well as mixed concentrate feed but no sight of a noug cake. He buys his mixed concentrate feed from Alema Koudijis Feed PLC (AKF), an animal feed factory in Debre Zeit.
“As long as I have the mixed concentrate, I would not need the noug cake. Besides it is 800 birr per quintal. That is expensive,” Teshome, who started his dairy farm in 2005, exclaims. Besides producing dairy products he also supplies animal feed to smallholder farmers in the area.
Teshome claims to have received several trainings and assist smallholder farmers in his area how to protect the health of their cattle.
“Each high-yielding milk cow costs as much as 60 thousand birr. Their health is also my concern. I know that a noug cake that has molds affects the health and productivity of my cows,”
Wake up call
The research finding has spurned the government into action at all levels. A taskforce has been set up comprising stakeholders such as Food, Medicine and Health Care Administration (FMHACA), Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) and Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development.
More studies regarding aflatoxin contamination are being carried out which are expected to be completed next week, according to Tesfaye Hailu, director of food science and nutrition directorate at Ethiopian Public Health Institute.
Milk samples from 22 milk processors, actors ignored by the ILRI research, are being analyzed, according to Tesfaye.
“In the long run, we plan to set up Food Safety Surveillance sites, which would regularly, like every three months, present reports on food safety,” Tesfaye told The Reporter. “We will also put in place food safety guideline for the entire value chain and training manuals to educate dairy farmers and consumers”.
And according to sources, stakeholders spearheaded by FMHACA and comprising of stakeholders like the Quality and Standards Authority have camped in Debre Zeit to deliberate on aflatoxin contamination standard for Ethiopia.
Although the country has enacted a law that regulates veterinary drugs and animal feeds nearly five years ago, its enforcement has remained limited.
Terzu Daya, director of Veterinay Drug and Feed Administration Control Authority, says the authority will start on vigorously enforcing the law after initial years of “awareness creation activities”. The Law, among other things, bars anyone from engaging in feed trade without obtaining a certificate of competence and levies a penalty of up to seven years of imprisonment and 50,000 birr fine for such violations.
Meanwhile, Teshome, whose dairy farm supports the livelihood of some 30 people, and his fellow dairy farmers have complained to the authorities and threatened that we would go out on a protest unless the government addressed the problem. They say what the government has done to clarify the problem has is, so far, not enough to quash the fears among the public.
With his increasing number of milk cows which also includes 11 calves, Teshome anticipates his daily milk production to grow to 500 liters per day in three years. But he says what happened over the last months has “crushed my moral”.
Dereje, the milk collector, shares the dairy farmers’ frustrations whose daily lives have been severely impacted.
“The government should protect the smallholder farmers not those imported milk powders we see aggressively advertised,” Dereje opines recalling the efforts recalling the “bird flu incident”.
In 2006, the death of thousands of chickens in Southern Regional State coincided with the global outbreak of avian flu. As a precautionary move, the government warned the public from consuming chickens or eggs. Later, samples were sent to Italy for analysis the results of which revealed that the deaths of the chickens were not related to avian flu. But that did little to ease the tension within the public affecting chicken and diary markets.
“If what people want is to see the Prime Minister and other ministers eating chicken or egg to quash the fears, then let it be known that I have not stopped eating and I will continue to do so,” joked former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in parliament at the time.
Since the research on aflatoxin contamination was made public, the government has been giving assurances for the public that the local milk is not a health risk. But the dairy farmers are yet to see a significant improvement in the demand for their milks.
“The government should give assurances repeatedly,” Teshome urges.
For researchers like Azage the aflatoxin level found in the milk samples should not be alarming in an environment where there is little awareness with regard to aflatoxin contamination, the absence of a safety regulation on the contaminant as well as a sector gripped with shortage of animal feed.
“This mean figure is lower than the US standard, and we should be thankful for our smallholder milk producers and suppliers,” the former Addis Ababa University lecturer contends.