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The hidden danger in common crops

You can’t see, taste or smell them but aflatoxins can be present in everyday dried staples. And with COVID-19 and global warming impacting crop production and storage, they are on the rise.

During the month of April 2021, there were 22 RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) alerts for aflatoxins appearing in foodstuffs at EU border checks. These included hazelnuts from Turkey, pistachios from Iran, chilli powder from India and peanuts from Argentina — illustrating the global scale and rising prevalence of aflatoxins on imported goods. Let’s be clear this is not a new problem. In 2019, aflatoxins in nuts was the most frequently reported issue in food checked at EU borders.

What are aflatoxins and why should we be concerned?

Aflatoxins are highly-toxic substances produced by moulds or fungi such as Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which grow on crop products like maize, millet, peanuts, rice and wheat.

What makes them particularly challenging for food manufacturers is that they are virtually undetectable without specialist scientific equipment. They are also hard to destroy and can survive most common production processes. This makes the continuous monitoring of aflatoxin levels essential to food safety.

Although naturally occurring, aflatoxins are extremely hazardous to health. They are potent carcinogens and may affect all organ systems, especially the liver and kidneys. They thrive in warm, wet conditions especially if crops are harvested and stored incorrectly. And, if animal feeds are infected, the toxin can cross over into the animal-source food chain, creating increased risk for recall and growing costs of wastage and destruction.

How can manufacturers minimise the risk?

Constant research into chemical and biological control methods are helping to reduce the risk from field to table. This includes irradiation and ozone fumigation on dried goods and the use of materials like biopolymers and biodegradable plastics on crops. Food manufacturers are also fighting back by continuing to innovate and improve food storage and packaging.

Manufacturers must remain vigilant and keep aflatoxins out of their supply and manufacturing chains. That means ensuring their own suppliers adopt best practices at all times, including performing rigorous testing and quality controls on all food supplies and ensuring stringent supplier quality control measures and reviews.

Despite all the mitigating practices in place, aflatoxins remain elusive and hard to eradicate, as a recent international pet food recall shows. To this end, food producers must always have a comprehensive and tested recall/remediation plan ready in case contaminated products reach the market.

What other measures are in place?

Many countries have implemented strict regulations for aflatoxins levels in imported food and feed. Just recently, the European Commission announced that it was tightening up measures on specific products entering from non-EU countries. These were being subjected to a temporary increase in official border checks, in some cases from 10% to 50%.

With heightened vigilance, we can expect even more alerts and potential recalls from this hidden danger in the months ahead. Therefore, it is vital that food producers remain alert and undertake the changes required to ensure they are meeting all food safety measures at all times.

To learn more about the rise and fall of recall trends and to acquire knowledge about how to plan for one, download our first edition of the 2021 recall index report.

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