Mycotoxin contamination: why we need to take product safety seriously

As crop protection tools come under fire across Europe, there are impactful changes we can make to EU safety assessment of agriculture chemicals, that guarantee safe and affordable food for all, writes Bill Wirtz.
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By Bill Wirtz

Bill Wirtz is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Consumer Choice Center

11 Sep 2020

As crop protection tools come under fire across Europe, there are impactful changes we can make to EU safety assessment of agriculture chemicals, that guarantee safe and affordable food for all, writes Bill Wirtz.

There are many countries that some Europeans will never visit, yet they eat food from these places every day. –For example, some readers will never set foot in the beautiful city of Istanbul, but if they eat figs, nuts, or olives, the chances are very high that they were imported from Turkey.

When Europeans buy these products, they expect them to be safe for consumption. However, a European Commission document from May this year suggests otherwise. Checks on food imports found that five percent of hazelnuts showed ochratoxin contamination, while 10 percent of dried grapes, 20 percent of dried figs, as well as 50 percent of pistachios from Turkey showed aflatoxin contamination.

Ochratoxin and aflatoxins are both subgroups of mycotoxins, which are toxic chemicals naturally produced by fungi, or mould, that are estimated to contaminate some 25 percent of the world’s crops. Damp climates, insect damage, and poor food storage facilitate the growth of mould and hence increase the likelihood and levels of mycotoxin contamination.

Aflatoxins are one of the highly toxic metabolites produced by fungal species, and are responsible for 28 percent of all liver cancers in the world. In Africa, aflatoxins affect more people than tuberculosis and malaria, representing 40 percent of all liver cancers. Turkey is just one example of where these food imports originate.

The aforementioned European Commission document included a long list of countries that the EU imports from, all with different levels of mycotoxin contamination. There are common precautions to fighting mould and limiting their respective health risks.

Adequate food storage is one of them, much like it is practised in the household, where it is also ill-advised to leave vegetables out in the hot sun. Farmers fight mycotoxins with fungicides, which are chemical compounds or organic organisms used to kill parasitic fungi or their spores. However, the chemicals used to combat mould are coming under fire, due to the EU’s hazard-based approval process.

“The approval process of the European Union needs to conduct both risk and impact assessments. We owe it to European consumers that their everyday foods are safe to eat”

The discussion surrounding the EU’s precautionary principle is a story to fill entire books, but for the purpose of this article, you need to know this. While the words “hazard” and “risk” are used interchangeably in the everyday use of the English language, they mean different things in science. In this reading, “hazard” is the potential for harm, “risk” is the likelihood of harm occurring.

For instance, going to the beach is a hazard because the sun can potentially cause harm; with sun cream managing this hazard by reducing unprotected exposure, thus making it not a risk. In scientific language, the sun is a hazard, but spending time at the beach with sun cream is not a risk.

The current approval process does not take this into account, thus banning many chemical compounds for their theoretical potential of causing harm. Under the current timeline, 58 pesticides are up for reapproval, with 25 of them being fungicides, which are used against mould. Many of them are unlikely to be re-approved, thereby depriving farmers of tools to fight mycotoxins. This would affect 60 percent of all agricultural imports in the EU (by 2016 standards), which could lead to even higher exposure of common foods to health-threatening toxins. The approval process of the European Union needs to conduct both risk and impact assessments.

We owe it to European consumers that their everyday foods are safe to eat.

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Agriculture & Food
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