Aflatoxins in food

Aflatoxins are mycotoxins produced by two species of Aspergillus, a fungus found especially in areas with hot and humid climates. As aflatoxins are known to be genotoxic and carcinogenic, exposure through food should be kept as low as possible. Aflatoxins can occur in foods such as groundnuts, tree nuts, maize, rice, figs and other dried foods, spices, crude vegetable oils and cocoa beans, as a result of fungal contamination before and after harvest. Several types of aflatoxins are produced naturally. Aflatoxin B1 is the most common in food and among the most potent genotoxic and carcinogenic aflatoxins. It is produced both by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. Aflatoxin M1 is a major metabolite of aflatoxin B1 in humans and animals, which may be present in milk from animals fed with aflatoxin B1 contaminated feed.

In February 2018, EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) delivered a statement on the possible effects on human health of an increase in the maximum permitted levels of aflatoxin in peanuts and peanut-based processed products. Using the cancer potencies estimated by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) in 2016, the panel estimated that raising the maximum level could increase the risk of aflatoxin-induced cancers for consumers of peanuts and peanut-based processed products by a factor of 1.6 to 1.8.

The panel recommended that a full risk assessment be carried out in light of the elevated aflatoxin levels observed in some food commodities originating from European countries. The last full risk assessment by the CONTAM Panel was carried out in 2007.

2017 EFSA visits its Italian partners and discusses the issue of climate change and aflatoxins as well as other mycotoxins. EFSA also releases a video on “Mycotoxins and Climate Change”, highlighting how changes in temperature, humidity, rainfall and carbon dioxide production impact on fungal behaviour and consequently on mycotoxin production. Italian research on aflatoxin is featured in the video.

2013 – EFSA publishes a Technical Report on aflatoxins B1, B2, G1, G2 in cereals and cereal-derived food products.

2012 – Researchers at the University of Piacenza complete an EFSA project on the potential increase in aflatoxin B1 in cereals in the EU as a result of climate change. They used data on aflatoxin B1 to develop predictive models, define scenarios and create maps highlighting potential future contamination of cereal crops. The results will help to inform any future work in this area by EFSA and give an indication of potential emerging food contamination by aflatoxins in the EU due to climate change.

2009 – EFSA publishes a Scientific Opinion on the effects on public health of an increase of the maximum level for total aflatoxins from 4 µg/kg to 10 µg/kg allowed for tree nuts other than almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios (e.g. Brazil nuts and cashews). Experts conclude that public health would not be adversely affected by increasing the levels for total aflatoxins from 4 µg/kg to 8 or 10 µg/kg for all tree nuts. However, EFSA’s experts reiterate their previous conclusions regarding the importance of reducing the number of highly contaminated foods reaching the market.

2007 – EFSA assesses the possibility of a potential increase in consumers’ health risks if higher levels of aflatoxins were permitted for almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios. Increasing the current EU maximum levels of 4 µg/kg total aflatoxins in these three nuts to 8 or 10 µg/kg total aflatoxins would have minor effects on the estimated dietary exposure, on the risk of cancer and the calculated margin of exposure. The Panel also concludes that exposure to aflatoxins from all food sources should be kept as low as reasonably achievable because aflatoxins are genotoxic and carcinogenic.

2004 – EFSA’s CONTAM Panel adopts an opinion related to aflatoxin B1 as an undesirable substance in animal feed. The CONTAM Panel concludes that the current maximum levels of aflatoxin B1 in animal feed not only provides an adequate protection from adverse health effects in target animal species, but also prevents undesirable concentration of the metabolite aflatoxin M1 in milk. Among its recommendations, the Panel encourages monitoring of the presence of aflatoxin B1 in imported feedstuffs and aflatoxin M1 in dairy milk.

EFSA provides scientific advice and risk assessments on aflatoxins for EU risk managers to help them assess the need for regulatory measures as regards the safety of aflatoxins-contaminated food and feed. In particular, EFSA is required to:

  • Evaluate the toxicity of aflatoxins for humans and animals considering all relevant toxicological information available
  • Assess human and animal exposure using occurrence data, in particular, from monitoring activities in EU Member States
  • Consider the exposure for specific population groups e.g. infants and children, people following specific diets
  • Consider the exposure of different animal species such as farm animals, fish and companion animals (pets and horses)
  • Make research recommendations for the collection of further data on aflatoxins that enable the refinement of risk assessments.

EU legislation protects consumers by:

  • Setting maximum levels for aflatoxins in food and feed to ensure they are not harmful to human or animal health
  • Keeping mycotoxin levels as low as reasonably achievable following recommended good agricultural, storage and processing practices.

Maximum levels for aflatoxins and certain other contaminants in food are set in Regulation (EC) 1881/2006 and subsequent amendments. Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of aflatoxins were introduced in Regulation (EC) 401/2006.

Directive 2002/32/EC establishes the maximum levels of contaminants, including aflatoxins, permitted in feed. Due to the wide year-to-year variation and the limited carry-over from food to feed of Fusarium toxins and ochratoxin A, a two-step approach was adopted for these aflatoxins in Recommendation 2006/576/EC.