American companies jostle for aflatoxin test kits deal

Scientists work at an agricultural research laboratory in Machakos County. A proposal has been drafted to decentralise aflatoxin tests from Government agencies. [Photo:File, Standard]

On a 10,000-acre ranch 42 kilometres from Nairobi, MPs, senior government officials, regulators and big grain handlers will be meeting on Monday in what could change the fight against aflatoxin.

The closed-door meeting at Maanzoni Lodge is shaping up as a battle to control the business of testing for the fungus responsible for huge after post-harvest losses in the country.

Three American firms are at the centre of the fight that pits Neogen against Helica and Charm.

Industry insiders say the meeting on June 19 is meant to consolidate Neogen’s grip on the Kenyan market, which would pave way to the region and the continent.

“Neogen controls up to 80 per cent of manufactured kits sold in America and Kenya is key since it provides entry into Africa, which is seen as virgin territory for technologies to battle aflatoxin,” a representative of a rival firm who did not want to be named told The Standard.

Under the Aflatoxin Proficiency Testing and Control in Africa, Asia and the America initiative, US firms plan to promote a co-regulation approach to managing aflatoxin risk that was developed by the Office of the Texas State Chemist; first in Kenya, then the rest of Africa.

At the centre of the battle is two aspects of the draft laws covering co-regulation and validation of standard kits.

Co-regulation is where millers and vendors, intermediate collection points, commercial grain handlers and food safety authorities are allowed to self-test their product rather than centralise testing at the Government Chemist, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and select private providers.

Players in the industry fear that this will squeeze them out since the business will be opened up to all actors as opposed to the centralised system.

“We are already fighting contaminated products, what will happen when we allow millers and animal feeds producers to do what they want? They will get away with anything,” said the source.

The validation of standardised kits may also mean that Neogen gets an upper hand if it is made the gold standard of aflatoxin test kits.

Professor Tim Herrman, State Chemist and Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Research refuted the claim, saying all aflatoxin test kits validated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (Gipsa) will be validated.

He said there are other standards that can be used to validate an analytical method and Kenya Government and private sector representatives will review them to develop something that works best for the country with the intent of making as many products available as possible while ensuring testing accuracy.

“At the request of the milling industry, I approached vendors of these Gipsa-approved kits to see if the companies would offer their products in Kenya at prices comparable to those in the US and provide free readers. This resulted in a lower aflatoxin testing cost in Kenya than the US,” said Prof Herrman.

A Neogen text kit costs Sh28,000 and can only do 48 tests. A Helica test kit costs an average Sh40,000 but can do 96 tests while Charm costs around Sh35,000 but can also do 96 tests.

According to the source, when farmers go to private providers they pay around Sh500 for a single test since they can conduct the 96 tests from one kit. Getting the tests done at the Government Chemist costs up to Sh3,000 for Elisa and Sh800 for HPL tests.

Professor Herrman, however, said his institution was not commercially motivated.

“It is key to note I did not negotiate the terms; rather, I conveyed the request and multiple companies decided on a discounted price and terms. The products are offered throughout eastern and southern Africa. It is also important to note that I have no financial interest in any of the kits and receive no commission,” he said.

Monday’s meeting is said to be an attempt by Neogen to gain the upper hand in the business over the long-term.

The company is said to have started making overtures at International Livestock Research Institute where it set up a laboratory, then went ahead and started tests for millers.

In March this year, Neogen is said to have sponsored Parliament’s agriculture committee members to the United States through Texas A&M.

The MPs had a week of meetings with Texas A&M AgriLife officials that included a One Sample Strategy programme demonstration, an initiative launched to mitigate the threat of aflatoxin and protect the integrity of the grain market.

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