Friday, 31 October 2014

Aflatoxin, an Invisible Food Hazard?

Part of the popular media have long been making much out of the fact that fungi such as Aspergillus can produce highly toxic compounds when growing under the right conditions. The right conditions can cause contamination on plant material that forms part of our food chain, so it follows that these toxins are poisoning us. Can this be correct?

There is certainly plenty of evidence that if left unchecked, mould contamination of foods can cause quite serious health problems but these are mainly in the developing world where crops are sometimes poorly stored and mouldy food is the only food available on some occasions. People that are forced to eat mouldy food can develop liver cancer and children can have their growth stunted.

In parts of the world that are more strictly regulated the presence of mycotoxin in food is highly regulated with regular testing of many food crops, but this article suggests that there are weak points in the screening mechanisms. In the US monitoring is only carried out when food passes between states, so if there is a contaminated batch of food (e.g. grain produced during a severe drought) and it is consumed e.g. as animal feed then there is no mechanism in place to detect it. Consequently animal food products could contain higher levels of toxin.

Several such cases were detected in EU in 2013 resulting in widespread contamination of milk intended for human consumption.

The cause of the contamination was quickly identified and removed from the food chain (Grain emanating from Serbia in this case)  but it might beg the question that cases occur that go undetected, even in the more highly developed countries of the world.

It has been suggested that global climate warming might be contributing to this problem.  Perhaps it is time the screening and regulation was reviewed and education of the public, in particular farmers stepped up to combat this health problem. It might need more investment in equipment for safely storing food crops or it might be a case for achieving more harmony in toxin regulation between countries. Whatever it takes, this potential health hazard is sure not to go away without our intervention.

NB one or two hints and tips for the domestic user to avoid mycotoxins are mentioned here.

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