Fungus in Your Food

Controlling aflatoxins – naturally occurring byproducts of common fungus on grains and other crops in poor, tropical countries – has become a new crusade for the world’s food scientists. One of the most significant risk factors of deadly liver cancer, controlling their existence in the world’s food supply is critical.

Scientists believe the aflatoxins, which often appear in common mold, could be responsible for up to 172,000 liver cancer cases per year, according to a study by the Washington, DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which was released today. They occur mostly in groundnuts and maize (corn). Persistent high levels can result in childhood stunting, according to the report, which can lead to a variety of adverse health conditions that last well beyond childhood.

The Eurozone countries and the United States have established strict standards to minimize aflatoxins on crops consumed in foods or animal foods. However, the IFPRI report said, particularly in tropical countries where food inspection standards are lax, they are more widespread and meeting such challenges remains difficult.

The IFPRI’s findings are carried in a 62-page report titled “Aflatoxins: Finding Solutions for Improved Food Safety” and comprising 19 policy briefs connected with the research institute, a member of the CGIAR Consortium, a global research partnership for food security.

Because the fungi are a pervasive threat to the environment, many different efforts are required to reduce food risk and move to higher quality food. New efforts must be made to build new market channels and to develop risk analysis.

“Aflatoxins pose both acute and chronic risks to health,” the authors note. “Exposure to aflatoxins is particularly high for low-income populations in the tropics that consume relatively large quantities of staples such as maize or groundnuts. Consumption of very high levels of aflatoxins can result in acute illness and death.”

As many as 26,000 such deaths occur annually in sub-Saharan Africa although “Other effects of chronic exposure are less understood due to the difficulties in establishing causality when putative effects are correlated with a number of adverse health determinants. Chronic exposure is associated with immune suppression and higher rates of illness.”

The specific role of aflatoxins in causing stunting isn’t known, for instance, although animal studies provide evidence that high levels in animal feeds have adverse effects for animal health, growth, and productivity.

“These are suggestive of such effects in humans, but animal studies typically involve much higher levels of aflatoxin exposure than is usually observed in human populations,” the report notes.

Actually discerning aflatoxin contamination is difficult although the presence of mold is a potential, albeit imperfect indicator. Farmer awareness is far from perfect, as are adequate storage and drying practices. While some moldy grain is diverted to uses that somewhat reduce direct human exposure, such as for brewing and animal feeds, paying attention to quality “is still unusual in most developing countries.”

Identification of high-risk elements of the supply chain should help prioritize those areas where market actors can intervene. The World Food Program’s Purchases for Peace program has a simpler approach: the introduction of basic grain quality evaluation tools which can be seen as an essential building block, providing the foundation for quality assessment and evolution toward improved supply chain management. Also changing handling and processing are important to reduce mold growth and contamination

Actually a wide range of control methods exist, according to the report, including cultivation practices and postharvest handling but none are in wide use in developing countries due to cost, logistics, and lack of incentives.

There are policy initiatives underway, along with regional approaches to setting standards or to biocontrol registration, which can reduce the costs of individual country action and may promote regional trade. Development of new detection and diagnostic tools that are cheaper, more reliable, and more easily used in the field is also underway, the report caus.

But while concern is growing about aflatoxin issues in tropical environments, little is definitively known about their public health risks or about effective market and technology solutions. “There is thus a continued need for multidisciplinary and comprehensive research to inform policy and to test potential solutions. Such research can use the tools of risk analysis to better inform policymakers about the scope of public health risks.