Tunisia: Aflatoxin-Contaminated Rice Still Stored in Oct's Warehouses

Tunis/Tunisia — A 800-tonne shipment of imported white rice, nearly half of which is contaminated with aflatoxins, is still stored separately in warehouses of the Tunisian Commerce Office (French: OCT), CEO Elyes Ben Ameur told TAP on Wednesday. Another shipment of 600 tonnes is being checked.

The value of imported shipments amounts to 1.5 million dinars. Ben Ameur said the OCT became aware of the contamination in early 2021 after a self-monitoring operation.

Aflatoxins are mycotoxins produced by certain fungi that proliferate in particular on seeds stored in hot and conditions. They are highly carcinogenic.

The CEO said half of the cargo of white rice unloaded by late January contained high levels of aflatoxin. Another cargo unloaded on February 3 is still being checked even though the foreign importing company presented certificates stating that the rice is safe for consumption.

Imported products are controlled by an internationally recognised company which was assigned the mission of monitoring the conformity of products with international standards and contractual conditions before and at the time of loading in the country of origin.

This company submitted certificates of analysis that state the validity of products based on microbiological and physico-chemical tests, including the conformity of products with the maximum permitted level of aflatoxin.

Self-control of products followed as soon as shipments arrived to the port. Tests carried out by an accredited Tunisian laboratory showed that some quantities of rice contained high levels of aflatoxins.

The office stored these quantities of rice in a separate warehouse, the official said. They were not put on sale in the domestic market.

He said the supplier was informed of the results of the lab tests and the office was utterly opposed to taking delivery of quantities of rice that did not meet quality standards.

"The OCT asked the supplier to come to Tunisia to look into bones of contention in accordance with contractual terms guaranteeing the rights of the office. The aim is to settle the issue amicably through the recovery of the amount paid for the importation of the product."

"This is not the first time high levels of aflatoxins are detected when importing such products," he added.

The office imports annually over 3,500 containers of food products, 1,000 of which of rice. The annual national rice consumption amounts to 27,000 tonnes.

The office has a strategic stock for around two and a half months of national consumption, i.e. 6 thousand tonnes shared out between the office's warehouses across the country, packaging plants and ports.

The rate of destruction of products unfit for consumption in Tunisia amounts to 2 per thousand for coffee and rice, while the international average is 5 to 7 per thousand, OCT Deputy Director General Noureddine Sallemi said in January.

The parliamentary committee on agriculture said when visiting OCT warehouses in January 120,000 tonnes of coffee, 6,500 tonnes of Thai rice and 22,000 litres of milk were unfit for consumption.

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