The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is urging action against mycotoxin contamination in developing countries after a recent review of the health effects associated with consuming aflatoxins and fumonisins was completed. This review found stronger evidence than ever before that mycotoxin contamination leads to stunted growth in children and has a much greater impact than previously thought on liver and other cancers.
Christopher Wild, the director of IARC, said in a recent article that mycotoxin contamination has been ignored for too long and causes major health problems for an estimated 500 million people living in some of the world’s poorest areas including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin American and Asia. People in these areas eat a staple diet of groundnuts, maize and other cereals, which are often contaminated with aflatoxins and fumonisins.
This comes in contrast to developed countries where people and livestock are protected by more developed agricultural practices, government regulation and legislation, the article explains.
The IARC evaluated 15 different interventions against mycotoxins, considering the evidence of their effectiveness, along with their transferability at an individual, community and national level. From this, four topics were selected as ready for implementation.
These included better sorting of crops so visibly moldy peanuts or maize kernels, for example, can be removed by hand before entering into the food supply. Several post-harvest measures were also deemed the most important, including improved storage and optimized nixtamalization, a process in which corn or other grains are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled. This process reduces mycotoxins while also increasing flavor and aroma in the crops. The article explains that this is especially important in Latin America where maize is a large part of their residents’ diets.
In addition, ensuring that crops are dried properly and stored in dry conditions, so the toxin-producing molds cannot grow, was also deemed an area that should be concentrated on for improvement.
Furthermore, Wild explains that these underdeveloped countries usually export their highest quality crops, while keeping their lowest quality crops for human consumption. These exported crops, however, are usually only used for animal feed, creating a paradoxical situation where a country may be exporting a higher quality product for animal feed in the developed world, and consuming the contaminated crops locally.
“We think there is a double benefit of improving the quality of the food and controlling the toxin level,” Wild explained. “First it makes for better quality to be eaten and improves the health of the population locally. It also probably has an economic benefit for the country in terms of the value of its exports,” Wild continued.
Testing of the crops to determine the level of contamination is another necessary step that should be taken in these circumstances. Not only would this determine if the crop meets the regulatory guidelines for export, but would also show farms the level of toxin in their food and hopefully deter them from consuming those that have high levels.
Ongoing research to fully understand the burden of disease in young children exposed to mycotoxins is still needed as well more partnerships between governments, international organizations and the private sector, Wild said. “Together we can decide the best ways to meet these challenges… that would be most important on the prevention side.”
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