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FAO: Effective measures to combat mycotoxins threats

Promoting the prevention and control of mycotoxin contamination in feed and food has been an important area of work within the food safety programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for many years. But what does this exactly entail?

By Renata Clarke, head food safety and quality unit, FAO

Addressing the challenges posed by mycotoxins is an imperative for FAO given its core mandate to improve food security: these toxins can affect staple foods such as maize and sorghum with important consequences for food security of poor and vulnerable populations. In many countries, particularly in Africa, dietary exposure to mycotoxins remains unacceptably high and the mounting evidence of the possible linkage between aflatoxins and stunting further underlines the urgency of improved control of mycotoxin contamination in order to achieve target food and nutrition security outcomes.

Mycotoxin contamination also leads to food/feed loss and has major negative economic consequences. In addition, with the current rates of world population increase, ongoing trends in urbanisation and rising incomes, the demand for animal sourced foods is increasing exponentially; as such the impact of mycotoxin on reducing feed efficiency is an issue that deserves particular attention as it might have further food security as well as economic implications. FAO, in collaboration with other partners, carries out a range of activities that contribute to prevention and control of mycotoxins globally, nationally and locally.

Science-based international standards

Agreed international standards and guidelines for the prevention and control of mycotoxins form the cornerstone of global efforts to protect public health from exposure to these toxins and to facilitate safe production and trade in commodities which are susceptible to contamination by mycotoxin- producing moulds. The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), establishes these guidelines and codes of practice. The sound scientific basis of these standards facilitates international agreement and convergence on these standards as countries recognise that they provide an appropriate level of public health protection. Risk assessments carried out by JECFA1 provide the authoritative and independent scientific advice that inform and guide Codex deliberations on mycotoxin standards.

Setting standards in only possible if there are adequate data available, however, these are often lacking in many developing countries. On occasion, jointly with WHO, FAO has supported the generation of data by developing countries to contribute to international deliberations on standardisation.  An example is the recent FAO/WHO project to assess the types and levels of mycotoxins in sorghum in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali and Sudan (four major sorghum producing/exporting and consuming countries).

The data from this project are in fact informing the Codex deliberations on the development of a code of practice for the reduction of mycotoxins in sorghum, and will eventually be used  by JECFA to carry out a detailed risk assessment if it is decided that Maximum Levels for selected mycotoxins in sorghum should be set.

Effective national programmes
All the standards and recommended practices developed by Codex, have little impact if countries are not able to apply them effectively. FAO works with countries to strengthen their national systems of food control such that standards and regulations necessary for the prevention and control of mycotoxins in food and feed are adopted into national legislation and that the relevant national and local authorities have the knowledge, the capacities and the means to enforce the standards. Preventing or minimizing contamination is the key to mycotoxin control. FAO highlights the importance of adapting  Codes of Practice to the local context facilitating uptake of good practices by value-chain operators.

Monitoring and surveillance
Essential components of any programmes of mycotoxin prevention and control are monitoring and surveillance systems. Developing such systems requires knowledge of designing effective sampling plans. This is a complex task, and in the case of mycotoxins the heterogeneity of their contamination further  increases the difficulty of estimating true contamination levels of affected lots. In response to frequent requests by national food safety agencies and by other development partners for guidance on sampling and interpretation of test results to determine and quantify mycotoxin contamination in a range of food commodities, FAO worked with international experts to develop an online Mycotoxin Sampling Tool2 which provides such support.

Emerging challenges
Climate Change is one of the main drivers that can contribute to the emergence of new food safety challenges and eventually risks, by altering patterns of occurrence of hazards in food/feed and of disease vectors. Mycotoxins is one example of food safety hazard whose occurrence is greatly influenced by environmental factors - mainly temperature, relative humidity, insect attack, drought, and stress condition of the plants - and thus greatly impacted by climate change3. This calls for vigilance on the part of food control authorities to pro-active identify emerging risks and to adapt food control programmes as necessary to ensure that these are effectively managed.

The way forward
Without coherent and sustained commitment to food safety in general, it is not likely that mycotoxin contamination can be effectively controlled. Increased advocacy for high-level national commitment for adequate investment in food control is necessary. There will always be resource constraints and it is therefore important that countries be equipped to recognise their own public health and trade priorities in relation to food safety. In many countries a rational assessment of the risk would lead to increased emphasis on mycotoxin control. FAO continues to put emphasis on developing countries capacities for evidence-based food safety decision-making including the application of the risk analysis framework. Despite decades of effort in promoting mycotoxin control, it remains a major global problem: the limited success of the past underlines the importance of concerted system-wide action that pays adequate attention to economic and technical feasibility as well as social acceptability. New and more effective approaches will also need to assess the applicability of emerging technologies – relevant to various stages of the food chain – to achieving better prevention and control. Actions at national level are informed by guidance provided globally. At global level, there needs to be continued attention to better understanding of threats posed by co-exposure to different mycotoxins and updating of guidance accordingly. This also involves better sharing of experiences of mycotoxin control in different countries. Only then, an upward spiral in control programmes on a global level can be generated.

References are available on request.

[Source: Managing mycotoxins, 2014]

Note: Renate Clarke will be speaking at the World Mycotoxin Forum on Monday, November 10, opening session: 09.35h

Renata Clarke

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