In light of dry weather and drought conditions in areas of North Carolina this season, farmers are harvesting their corn a little earlier this year. This has prompted the Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers to have their corn tested for aflatoxin to prevent contamination of feeds and food.

“Corn that has been harvested from areas that suffer from drought will be highly susceptible to aflatoxin,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “Farmers in drought–stricken areas are strongly encouraged to take advantage of this testing. We have six drop-off locations at research stations across the state to make it easy for farmers to submit samples.”

Public domain image: Tomwsulcer @ wikimedia commons
Public domain image: Tomwsulcer @ wikimedia commons

Troxler says aflatoxin testing of crop samples can by performed the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More details on testing and costs, see the NC Dept. of Agriculture press release yesterday.

Aflatoxin is a potent mycotoxin that is produced as a secondary metabolite to certain strains of the fungus Aspergillus, in particular Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.

The toxin is then excreted onto plants or pre-processed foods, some intended for human consumption.

Aflatoxins are contaminants of foods intended for people or animals as a result of fungal contamination. The most common foods implicated are cereals like corn, wheat and rice, oilseeds like peanuts and sunflower, and spices. However, the toxin can affect a very wide range of food stuffs (see below).

Different factors contribute to aflatoxin contamination. In semi-arid climates, the effect of drought can increasethe amount of Aspergillus in the air causing pre-harvest contamination of certain crops.

Crops grown and stored in more tropical environments where the temperature and humidity is high usually have a higher risk of both pre and post-harvest contamination. Of course, much of the problem lies with homegrown crops that are not harvested or stored properly.

Aflatoxin poisoning can be broken up into acute and chronic disease depending on the amount of toxin ingested. When people (or animals) ingest aflatoxin contaminated foods, the liver is the main target for disease.

There is a direct link between aflatoxin poisoning and liver cancer. Liver cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma is an important public health concern in many parts of the world due to aflatoxin.

Because it is impossible to completely eliminate this danger, in the United States feeds and grains are laboratory tested for levels of aflatoxins and food with unacceptable levels are removed from the market.

Foods most commonly affected by aflatoxins (from the USDA’s Food Safety Research Information Office):

• Cereals (maize, corn, sorghum, pearl millet, rice, wheat)
• Oilseeds (peanut, soybean, sunflower, cotton)
• Spices (chillies, black pepper, coriander, turmeric, ginger)
Tree nuts (almonds, pistachio, walnuts, coconut)
• Dried fruits (sultanas, figs)
• Cocoa beans
• Milk, eggs, and meat products*

* Milk, eggs, and meat products are occasionally contaminated due to the consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated feed by animals.

Robert Herriman is a microbiologist and the Editor-in-Chief of Outbreak News Today

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