2009-10-08 / General Stories

What are Aflatoxins?

According to history, the Aflatoxin was first discovered in the 1960's when over 100,000 turkeys died from a mysterious disease. After research concluded that other birds were dying, it was discovered that all birds affected were being fed the same feed. In this case it was Brazilian peanut oil.

The discovery of the toxin forming fungus was named Aflatoxin because of its origin. Since its discovery, it has led to a growing awareness of the potential hazards of these substances as contaminants of food and feed causing illness and even death in humans and other mammals.

Aflatoxins often occur in crops in the field prior to harvest. Post-harvest contamination can occur if crop drying is delayed, and during storage of the crop if water is allowed to exceed critical values for the mold growth. Aflatoxins can be detected occasionally in milk, cheese, corn, peanuts, cottonseed, nuts, almonds, figs, spices, and a variety of other foods and feeds. Milk, eggs, and meat products are sometimes contaminated because the animal consumption of Aflatoxin-contaminated feed. However, food crops with the highest risk of Aflatoxin contamination are corn, peanuts, and cottonseed.

Because of the wide use of corn as a staple food, it is of highest concern for Aflatoxin contamination. We eat it and use it for cooking and baking. Agricultural meat production used for consumption by the populace is another concern as well as the feeding of wildlife such as white tailed deer and songbirds.

Another concern of Aflatoxin is in the disease causing agent effect on an individual. In fact, aflatoxins cause liver damage, decreased milk and egg production, recurrent infection as a result of immunity suppression (eg. salmonellosis), in addition to embryo toxicity in animals consuming low dietary concentrations. While the young of a species are most susceptible, all ages are affected but in different degrees for different species. Clinical signs of aflatoxicosis in animals include gastrointestinal dysfunction, reduced reproductivity, reduced feed utilization and efficiency, anemia, and jaundice. One strain of Aflatoxin is even categorized as a carcinogen, a cancer causing agent.

Aflatoxins are considered unavoidable contaminants of food and feed, even where good manufacturing practices have been followed. The FDA has established specific guidelines on acceptable levels of aflatoxins in human food and animal feed by establishing action levels. Bags of feed that are in violation of these action levels are removed from shelves. The action level for human food is 20 ppb total aflatoxins, with the exception of milk which has an action level of 0.5 ppb. The action level for most feeds is also 20 ppb.

There is a substantial economic impact of Aflatoxin directly from crop and livestock losses; as well as, indirectly from the cost of regulatory programs designed to reduce risks to animal and human health. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 25% of the world's food crops are affected by mycotoxins, of which the most notorious are aflatoxins. In addition, the ability of aflatoxins to cause cancer and related diseases in humans given their seemingly unavoidable occurrence in foods and feeds make the prevention and detoxification of these mycotoxins one of the most challenging toxicology issues of present time.

If you would like to contact your local biologist, see our website at; http:// www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wildlifebiologist.

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