Aflatoxins: Occurrence and health risks

Muhammad Waqar Ashraf

Published — Wednesday 7 November 2012

Last update 7 November 2012 10:48 am

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Aflatoxins are toxic substances produced by certain microorganisms in/on foods and feeds. Aflatoxins have been associated with various diseases, such as aflatoxicosis, in livestock, domestic animals and humans throughout the world. The occurrence of aflatoxins is influenced by certain environmental factors; hence the extent of contamination will vary with geographic location, agricultural and agronomic practices, and the susceptibility of commodities to fungal invasion during pre-harvest, storage, and/or processing periods. Aflatoxins have received greater attention than any other toxins because of their demonstrated potent carcinogenic effect in susceptible animals and their acute toxicological effects in humans. As it is realized that absolute safety is never achieved, many countries have attempted to limit exposure to aflatoxins by imposing regulatory limits on commodities intended for use as food and feed.
In the 1960 more than 100,000 young turkeys on poultry farms in England died in the course of a few months from an apparently new disease that was termed ‘Turkey X disease’. It was soon found that the difficulty was not limited to turkeys. Ducklings and young pheasants were also affected and heavy mortality was experienced. An intensive investigation revealed that there are four major aflatoxins: B1, B2, G1, G2 plus two additional metabolic products, M1 and M2 that are of significance as direct contaminants of foods and feeds.
Aflatoxins often occur in crops in the field prior to harvest. Postharvest contamination can occur if crop drying is delayed and during storage of the crop if water is allowed to exceed critical values for the mold growth. Insect or rodent infestations facilitate mold invasion of some stored commodities. Aflatoxins are detected occasionally in milk, cheese, corn, peanuts, cottonseed, nuts, almonds, figs, spices, and a variety of other foods and feeds. Milk, eggs, and meat products are sometimes contaminated because of the animal consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated feed. However, the commodities with the highest risk of aflatoxin contamination are corn, peanuts, and cottonseed.
Corn is probably the commodity of greatest worldwide concern, because it is grown in climates that are likely to have perennial contamination with aflatoxins, and corn is the staple food of many countries. Nevertheless, procedures used in the processing of corn help to reduce contamination of the resulting food product. This is because although aflatoxins are stable to moderately stable in most food processes, they are unstable in processes such as those used in making tortillas that employ alkaline conditions or oxidizing steps. Aflatoxin-contaminated corn and cottonseed meal in dairy rations have resulted in aflatoxin M1 contaminated milk and milk products, including non-fat dry milk, cheese, and yogurt. 
Fungal growth and aflatoxin contamination are the consequence of interactions among the fungus, the host and the environment. The appropriate combinations of these factors determine the infestation and the amount of aflatoxin produced. However, a suitable substrate is required for fungal growth and subsequent toxin production, although the precise factor(s) that initiates toxin formation is not well understood. Water stress, high-temperature stress, and insect damage of the host plant are major determining factors in mold infestation and toxin production. Similarly, specific crop growth stages, poor fertility, high crop densities, and weed competition have been associated with increased mold growth and toxin production. Aflatoxin formation is also affected by associated growth of other molds or microbes. For example, preharvest aflatoxin contamination of peanuts and corn is favored by high temperatures, prolonged drought conditions, and high insect activity; while postharvest production of aflatoxins on corn and peanuts is favored by warm temperatures and high humidity. 
Humans are exposed to aflatoxins by consuming foods contaminated with products of fungal growth. Such exposure is difficult to avoid because fungal growth in foods is not easy to prevent. Even though heavily contaminated food supplies are not permitted in the market place in developed countries, concern still remains for the possible adverse effects resulting from long-term exposure to low levels of aflatoxins in the food supply. Evidence of acute aflatoxicosis in humans has been reported from many parts of the world, namely the Third World Countries, like Taiwan, Uganda, India, and many others. The syndrome is characterized by vomiting, abdominal pain, pulmonary edema, convulsions, coma, and death with cerebral edema and fatty involvement of the liver, kidneys, and heart.
Conditions increasing the likelihood of acute aflatoxicosis in humans include limited availability of food, environmental conditions that favor fungal development in crops and commodities, and lack of regulatory systems for aflatoxin monitoring and control. Because aflatoxins, especially aflatoxin B1, are potent carcinogens in some animals, there is interest in the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of these important toxins on humans. In 1988, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) placed aflatoxin B1 on the list of human carcinogens. This is supported by a number of epidemiological studies done in Asia and Africa that have demonstrated a positive association between dietary aflatoxins and Liver Cell Cancer (LCC). 
Additionally, the expression of aflatoxin-related diseases in humans may be influenced by factors such as age, sex, nutritional status, and/or concurrent exposure to other causative agents such as viral hepatitis or parasite infestation. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, strict standards have been set by the Saudi Arabian Standard Organization (SASO) for the presence of Aflatoxins in edible commodities (0.05 micrograms per gram). 
The economic impact of aflatoxins derive directly from crop and livestock losses as well as indirectly from the cost of regulatory programs designed to reduce risks to animal and human health. The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 25 percent of the world’s food crops are affected by aflatoxins. Aflatoxin losses to livestock and poultry producers from aflatoxin-contaminated feeds include death and the more subtle effects of immune system suppression, reduced growth rates, and losses in feed efficiency. Other adverse economic effects of aflatoxins include lower yields for food and fiber crops.
In addition, the ability of aflatoxins to cause cancer and related diseases in humans given their seemingly unavoidable occurrence in foods and feeds make the prevention and detoxification of these toxic substances one of the most challenging toxicology issues of present time. 

— Dr. Muhammad Waqar Ashraf is a professor of Environmental Chemistry at Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University.

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