AOAC opens sub-Saharan Africa section in analytics milestone

Attendees at AOAC-SSA meeting.

The meeting was attended by local and international stakeholders from industry, academia and government.

Formally established earlier in the year and subsequently registered on the 18th May 2018 in South Africa, the AOAC Sub-Saharan Africa section (AOAC-SSA) held its inaugural meeting at the Farm Inn Hotel just outside Pretoria from 5 to 7 November 2018. Driven by a need to improve the performance of testing labs in the sub-continent and introduce more uniformity in the application of standards, the AOAC-SSA covers private, research, academic and government laboratories in 49 countries currently in Africa.

“The hope is that we can act as a forum for the monitoring and improvement of testing standards,” said Ephraim Moruke, the AOAC-SSA’s president-elect. “We could also foster greater engagement between public and private stakeholders, which could have a very positive knock-on effect for consumers.” A particular emphasis is placed on the development of food testing standards, which could have a live-saving effect in many parts of Africa.

“For the longest time, we were receiving standards from overseas bodies, Moruke said, “and while these are useful they are limited in addressing some needs in the continent – indigenous foods.” Once approached, the AOAC INTERNATIONAL proved open to the idea of a Sub-Saharan Africa branch. “As much as anything, it’s about instilling confidence in local analytical results,” said current AOAC-SSA president Dr Owen Fraser. “There is also a need to extend the scope of official methods to include indigenous foods where required and institute an impartial, independent scientific advisory body in the region.”

Raising standards

With the tranquil surroundings of the Farm Inn hotel as a backdrop, delegates to the AOAC’s inaugural meeting discussed ways to improve the quality of testing in the continent and cooperation between regional scientific organisations, among other topics. In his opening address, Dr Fraser pointed out that the AOAC-SSA could already boast 290 members scarcely six months after its formation, most having joined thanks to word-of-mouth. “We have seen tremendous interest from diverse people involved in government, academia and private industry,” he said.

Dr Fraser highlighted that the meeting’s goal was the development of a roadmap to set out goals, share learning and approach challenges in the testing milieu. The AOAC INTERNATIONAL’s executive director Mr David Schmidt lauded the establishment of Sub-Saharan Africa section in his address, citing it is a vital component in the international body’s attempts to “leverage the power of many” by establishing centres of testing excellence throughout the world. He also highlighted the way AOAC provides an opportunity to harmonise local methods with international ones and the need for the development of appropriate tests for the burgeoning edible cannabis industry via AOAC’s Cannabis Analytical Science Programme.

Several speakers, including the Director General of the Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) and President of African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO) Dr Eve Gadzikwa and the National Metrology Institute of SA’s (NMISA) Dr Wynand Louw, contextualised the AOAC-SSA’s role in an envisioned African monetary union. “The Abuja treaty provides a blueprint for African integration and the establishment of an African common market,” Dr Gadzikwa said, stressing the need for increased cooperation between African organisations as a subset of this process.

Dr Louw pointed out that there were already three monetary unions in South Africa and it was simply a matter of unifying these at some point in the future, although it may be a while before this is a reality. Vitally, Dr Louw highlighted the role of quality testing infrastructure in instituting protectionist measures for local economies. Currently, African economies had almost no protectionist measures in place and this could severely endanger public health.

Regulatory frameworks vital

In a panel discussion, the (IAEA) International Atomic Energy Agency’s Dr Andrew Cannavan used the example of Benin’s pineapple exports to the European Union (EU) to demonstrate how important quality control measures are in the maintenance of trade relationships. When Benin was given the opportunity to export pineapples to the EU market, they jumped at the chance, but found that their exports were poor because EU customers prefer yellow pineapples while Benin’s are green. Eventually, someone started adding large amounts of yellow colourant to the pineapple crops. Once this was discovered, the EU stopped buying pineapples from them altogether.

AOAC INTERNATIONAL’S immediate past president Ms DeAnn Benesh spoke at length about the need for a regulatory framework for microbiology methods. Currently, very few countries have these regulations in place, but they will become more important as food production becomes more intricate and specialised. She pointed out that the methods used for microbiology testing in some of the world’s most advanced laboratories are available for free online. “In addition, the AOAC’s Official Methods of Analysis programme is specifically designed to keep lab technicians appraised of methods such as these,” Benesh said.

Many attendees raised the issue of the prohibitive costs involved in acquiring testing kits, which could cost as much as $100 000 for certain disciplines. Ms Benesh pointed out that, while the AOAC could not make these kits available, access to the organisation’s extensive array of testing methods was open to members. Among the other speakers, (University of Johannesburg) UJ’s Valerie Muckoya spoke about the need to improve wastewater testing capabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“New methods such as the introduction of carbon nanomaterials are cost effective and allow for large surface area absorption,” she pointed out. “It is also a very rapid analysis method.” Effective wastewater testing infrastructure will become more and more important as Africa’s population explosion continues. Another speaker, Sabelo Chamane, discussed a way to use gas chromatography time-of-flight mass spectrometry to improve the analysis of infant formula.

“The amount of support we have received for the establishment of this section is truly amazing,” Moruke enthused. “We hope to use the momentum we have built up here as a springboard towards building a quality infrastructure that can benefit the whole of Africa.” Given the amount of interest the organization has generated in a very short time, the AOAC-SSA has already become a vital cog in the regional scientific community.

AOAC International and the AOAC-SSA is indebted to the competence and professionalism displayed by the event organisers, SAVETCON. Corne and her team had the event covered from day one and managed the proceedings without a single hitch.

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