The National Public Health Laboratory plays a crucial role in Food Safety and Nutrition
By Lawrence Aloo and George Ogana
National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL) has a Food Safety and Nutrition Reference Laboratory (FSNRL) which consists of Nutrition, Food Chemistry and Mycotoxin Laboratories. These laboratories perform tests for food-borne contaminants and micronutrients for public health concerns.
The unit provides support in disease surveillance and outbreak investigations aimed at stopping and reversing the rising burden of non-communicable conditions. It also provides consultancies related to food safety and nutrition for multi-sectoral programs.
The Food Safety and Nutrition unit
The Food Safety and Nutrition unit is in the process of applying for ISO 17025:2017 accreditation for test methods. Recently the laboratory participated in testing samples from West Pokot for alcohol to assist the Virology Reference Laboratory in determining whether alcohol intake contributes to incidences of alcoholic hepatitis. The results indicated that although ethanol level was within the recommended range in the samples, heavy alcohol consumption over an extended period of time may cause alcoholic hepatitis.
The Nutrition Laboratory continuously monitors the levels of fortificants in specified foods from both commercial and household levels. According to the Kenya National Micronutrient Survey (KNMS, 1999), micronutrient deficiencies was noted as a major challenge in Kenya requiring food fortification as a strategic intervention. It is therefore a requirement in the Kenya Standard to fortify maize and wheat flour with iron and zinc, edible fats/oils, vitamin A and salt with potassium iodate.
Lately, Maize samples brought in by Public Health Officers (PHOs) from Makueni and Meru regions have recorded very high aflatoxin levels. This proves that mitigation measures have declined, hence awareness should be strengthened. Chronic aflatoxin exposure causes liver cancer while acute aflatoxicosis causes diarrhea, jaundice and finally death.
The Mycotoxin laboratory
The Mycotoxin laboratory is involved in testing mycotoxins such as aflatoxins and fumonisins in foods while clinical samples are handled during aflatoxin outbreak. Aflatoxins are natural poisons produced by fungi such as Aspergillus spp. Commodities susceptible to this fungal attack include maize, beans, nuts etc. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has placed Aflatoxin B1 as a group 1 human carcinogen that means there is enough evidence to conclude that it can cause cancer in humans. Chronic exposure to Aflatoxin B1 and Fumonisin B1causes liver and esophageal cancers respectively.
Food Chemistry Laboratory
The Food chemistry laboratory tests foods, environmental and clinical samples for heavy metals and plans are underway to start testing pesticides. Heavy metals are highly toxic causing damage to the nervous system, kidney, skin, eyes and liver and are associated with various cancers. Heavy metals tested include mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic.
The laboratory offers food testing services to public institutions, private organizations and individuals. So far the lab has been receiving samples from Nairobi, Eastern, Central and Rift valley regions of Kenya. There is need to extend services to cover other areas like Coast, Western, Nyanza and Northern parts of Kenya.