(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 1/24/12)
One of the most toxic and carcinogenic threats in the human food supply is a natural chemical called "aflatoxin" that is produced by a fungus called Aspergillus. This opportunistic plant pathogen has the capacity to grow on a wide range of foods and feeds (corn, peanuts, cotton seed, tree nuts, dried spices and chiles...). The chance that it will contaminate a crop is enhanced by drought and/or insect damage - unfortunately both conditions expected to be more common with the onset of climate change. We didn't even know about this nasty chemical until 1960 when it was identified as the cause of death for more than 100,000 turkey poults in the UK that ate contaminated feed. Since that time we have come a long way in learning how to protect crops from contamination where possible, or to detect the toxin and thus keep it out of the food supply. The problem is that the degree to which people are protected from this threat varies widely around the world. The need to solve that disparity will only become more urgent.
I maintain a Google Alert for "aflatoxin" so that I can keep track of what is happening with this risk around the world. I'll describe some recent news coming from regions with a very different status in terms of managing this threat: the US, China and Kenya.
USA: Avoided Threats To Corn-Eating DogsIn rich countries like the US, the food and feed industry generally does an excellent job of preventing aflatoxin contamination. Most of the news items about aflatoxin from these countries involve things like ever more sensitive testing methods or advances in Aspergillus control. However, late last year there was a rash of dog food recallsbecause of Aflatoxin. Details have been hard to find, but the most likely explanation is that severe drought conditions in areas like Texas and Oklahoma increased the incidence of aflatoxin contamination this season. One does not normally think about dogs eating corn, but corn-derived ingredients (corn gluten, DDG from ethanol production...) are plant-based alternatives to meat as a way to give dogs protein. That these incidents were caught before any reports of dog injury is good news as opposed to an event in 2006 where 76 dogs died. The fact that the issue wasn't caught before the products were shipped suggests that someone wasn't being as watchful as they should have been in a drought year. We have the awareness and the testing methods to prevent problems. We just have to use them rigorously.
China: A New Watchdog Agency Is Finding Many ProblemsIn a rapidly advancing society like that of China, aflatoxin management has become a new area of focus. After the major scandal about melamine contaminated milk in 2008, the Chinese government stepped up safety monitoring for the food supply. Not surprisingly, several issues are being found. Milk contaminated with aflatoxin was recently discovered. Aflatoxin was subsequently found in peanuts and cooking oil in Guangdong Province. Unfortunately, with a highly fragmented and rapidly changing food system, it is likely that it will take some time to fully protect the Chinese population from this toxin.
Africa: Sometimes Even The Food Aid Is ContaminatedMy Google Alert sent me a link to a particularly sad, but not uncommon article about an event in Africa. This is from the text of An editorial in the Daily Nation from Kenya posted last Sunday:
The Daily Nation editorial concludes by saying:
"So far, the issue of food contamination has been handled casually and we feel it is time this was brought to the fore as a major food security concern because we cannot afford this kind of waste."
I couldn't agree more.
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Contaminated corn image by Pat Lipps, Ohio State University