The increasing threat of mycotoxin contamination

New Food invites a panel of three industry experts to share their perspectives on this growing devastating hazard…


(LC) Liz Colebrook, Global Scientific & Regulatory Affairs Director of Food Safety at Mars, Incorporated 

(AA) Amare Ayalew, Manager of the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) 

(JH) Jagger Harvey, Director, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss 

Q: Crops rejected due to mycotoxin contamination are often eaten by vulnerable people, leading to significant health problems. Is it better to eat unsafe food than have no food at all?

LC: At Mars we have always believed that ‘if it’s not safe, it’s not food’. For those that are unaware: mycotoxins are a group of toxic compounds that are naturally produced by certain types of moulds (fungi) that grow on widely used foodstuffs such as maize, wheat and peanuts. One group of mycotoxins, known as aflatoxins, were identified by the World Health Organization as the most dangerous natural chemical food safety hazard, as exposure to even low levels over a long period of time has been shown to result in cancer, immune suppression and other long-term pathological conditions. This demonstrates the scale of the problem we are facing. However, food insecurity, impacting one in three people worldwide, with close to 12 percent classified as experiencing severe food insecurity in 2020, will likely lead to contaminated crops being eaten, exposing billions of people around the world who are currently without alternative options.

At Mars we have always believed that ‘if it’s not safe, it’s not food.’

AA: Undoubtedly, food insecurity exposes vulnerable people to mycotoxins because they will be forced to eat what they might otherwise have rejected, even when the food is visibly mouldy and organoleptically unacceptable. However, the choice between eating mycotoxin-contaminated food and no food at all denies vulnerable people a fair opportunity to access healthy and nutritious food. This has been tragically demonstrated in outbreaks from eastern Africa reported as recently as 2019.

The morbidity and mortality due to mycotoxins creates burdens on already stressed health systems and costs developing countries substantial resources. Therefore, consumption of poor-quality contaminated food is not the solution to address food insecurity challenges. One cannot correct a problem with another worse problem, potentially much worse at that.

Q: Developing countries, already struggling with crops blighted by mycotoxins, are ill-equipped to deal with the instability in the global supply chain; what can be done?