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Recent aflatoxin scandal in Europe has again brought attention to the need for reliable control of food safety. Unfortunately, aflatoxin contamination can be difficult to detect. Adequate preventive measures should be used to avoid future problems.

Europe was hit by a new series of food safety scandals this year. The findings that battery eggs in Germany were labeled as organic and horse meet was sold as beef didn't help to improve the trust in the mind of customers that EU is capable of controlling the food safety on the continent.

One particular food safety scare also created a certain degree of confusion among the public. Multiple newspaper reports in March this year were talking about a new danger – aflatoxin. Tons of milk in Germany were contaminated with this carcinogenic toxin. The source of troubles was traced to the contaminated maize from Serbia which was used as animal feed.

Many people have never heard of the word “aflatoxin” before. This is why it does make sense to have a closer look on this problem.

What is Aflatoxin?

Cereal crops are vulnerable to the attacks by infectious agents such as fungi that produce toxins. Among these toxins, Aflatoxin is of great significance due to its deleterious effects on poultry, livestock, as well as humans. The name aflatoxin refers to the group of four toxins (B1, B2, G1, G2) produced by fungi that belong to the Aspergillus family. They were discovered in 1960 during outbreak of Turkey X syndrome disease in the UK. It was found that the cause of this disease was a toxin produced by a fungus Aspergillus flavus and the toxin was given the name aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin producing fungi tends to thrive in warm and humid climate. The crops get contaminated and consumption of such crops and associated products introduce aflatoxin into human body.

Some of the foods that have higher risk of contamination with aflatoxin are peanuts, tree nuts such as pecans, corn and wheat. Even tobacco is a target of this fungus. There is an opinion that many of tobacco associated malignancies might have a positive relationship with aflatoxin. Aflatoxin might be present in the animal products such as milk when animals are fed on the contaminated foods.

Why aflatoxin is so dangerous?

Aflatoxin contamination of the crops is considered one of the major problems of the food safety in the EU. As a result, aflatoxin is one of the most intensively studied mycotoxins in the world.

The compound can cause acute illness which can be life threatening but it is best known for its association with hepatocellular carcinoma.

Hepatocellular carcinoma is one of the most common malignancies in China. About 45% of all hepatocellular carcinoma cases worldwide are registered in China. This high incidence has been attributed to the consumption of aflatoxin contaminated food.

Aflatoxin also has other negative effects on human health. It suppresses the immune system of the body and retards the growth and development of young children.

Mechanism of action: how aflatoxin causes cancer?

Aflatoxin is a carcinogen, the compound causing cancer. The problem is that aflatoxin is one of the strongest carcinogens known. This means that even the low dose exposure to this toxin can cause the development of this disease.

Aflatoxin belongs to the class of so-called DNA intercalators. The molecule has a planar structure which is capable of inserting itself inside the DNA helix. Once it is there, aflatoxin chemically reacts with DNA components and thus promotes the generation of mutations, the changes in DNA native sequence. When mutations happen in the genes responsible for the control of cellular growth and division, they can lead to the development of cancer.

The most likely place where the tumor can develop in human body due to aflatoxin is liver. Liver cells have higher exposure to aflatoxin, and the toxin can be easily taken up by them.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Heather Strosnider et al. (2006) Workgroup Report: Public Health Strategies for Reducing Aflatoxin Exposure in Developing Countries. Environ Health Perspect. 114(12): 1898–1903
  • C.C. Wanop (1961) The histopathology of Turkey X disease in Great Britain. Avian Diseases 5, 371-381
  • Photo courtesy of CIAT by Flickr :
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