Review of mycotoxins

Presentation and role of ANSES

Mycotoxins are produced by certain moulds or fungi on cereal crops during growth or during storage. Over 300 have been identified, but only around 30 are sufficiently toxic to be of concern for humans or animals.

Mycotoxins naturally contaminate many foods of plant origin. They mainly affect cereals, but also fruit (particularly fruit, walnuts, almonds, apples), and manufactured goods made from these products and intended for human consumption. They are also found in seeds, fodder and mixed feed for animal nutrition, and subsequently in milk, eggs, meat or offal if the animals have eaten feed contaminated by mycotoxins.

Generally speaking, mycotoxins are thermostable, so are not destroyed by standard cooking and sterilisation processes. Some have a very high acute toxicity level (based on a single exposure to a high dose). In Europe, this type of exposure is very rare among humans and mainly concerns the livestock sector. However, repeated exposure to low or very low doses (chronic effects) is the most dangerous to humans due to eating habits and the persistence of these toxins.

What is ANSES’s focus?

ANSES has assessed the risks related to the presence of mycotoxins in both the human food and animal feed chains. The objective was to review current knowledge and take a closer look at aspects such as the impact of mycotoxins on public and animal health. The resulting report—“Risk assessment of the presence of mycotoxins in the human and animal food chains”—published in late 2009 presents the current state of knowledge for each mycotoxin group. This detailed overview is complemented by recommendations for research into the risks associated with some of these toxins and their transfer to products of animal origin.

Through its total diet studies (TDS), the Agency is also seeking to better characterise the French population’s exposure to certain groups of mycotoxins such as B-, G- and M-group aflatoxins, ochratoxins, patulin and fusarium toxins such as fumonisins, A- and B-trichothecenes and zearalenone. The first TDS1, in collaboration with the French agronomy research institute (INRA), covered both adults and children. Results were published in 2005. In 2006, after a formal internal request, ANSES conducted a second study (TDS2) to monitor changes in exposure levels over time. Finalised in 2010, this study was published in 2011. A new TDS concentrating on children’s diet (TDSi) is underway to study the exposure of children under three years old. The results should be published in 2013.

ANSES’s Maisons-Alfort Laboratory for Food Safety is the National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for mycotoxins in food of animal origin (group B3d per Annex I of Council Directive 96/23/EC). It coordinates a network of laboratories that implement monitoring plans for aflatoxin M1 in milk and dairy products. It develops analytical tools and conducts forward-looking monitoring plans to assess current contamination levels of mycotoxins presenting a risk for humans (ochratoxin A in the blood and products derived from the blood of pigs and poultry; ochratoxin A in pork offal; or B-, G- or M-group aflatoxins in infant milk).

Mycotoxins and animal feed 

ANSES’s Ploufragan Laboratory conducts research into the impact of mycotoxins on the digestive flora of pigs.

In response to a call for proposals issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), ANSES and a consortium of partners—two INRA laboratories, the VAR Veterinary and Agrochemical Research Centre in Belgium, the IRTA Institute for Food and Agriculture Research and Technology in Spain and the ISPA Institute of Sciences of Food Production in Italy—drew up a review of mycotoxin-detoxifying agents. These substances are considered technological additives: acting as ligands, they are added to animal feed to prevent the bioavailability and thus the harmful effects of certain mycotoxins.

This project established an inventory of mycotoxin-detoxifying agents, described their mode of action and identified relevant criteria for assessing their efficacy and impact through in vitro and in vivo investigations. This compilation of scientific information was needed to assess the risks and benefits of these detoxifying agents as animal feed additives, enabling EFSA to draft European guidelines on their assessment.