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From field to fork: on the trail of the toxins threatening animal and human health

The EU-funded MYCOKEY project reports early success in the hunt for a faster, reliable and more environmentally friendly way to detect food contamination.

Mycotoxins are toxins from the fungus family which can colonise crops, especially under wet conditions, infecting the food chain and so proving fatal to both humans and animals. They have been linked to a range of health problems including cancer, gastrointestinal, urogenital, vascular, kidney and nervous disorders. Some mycotoxins have been found to compromise the immune system, reducing resistance to infectious disease. The impact is also felt through economic loss, with reduced animal productivity and decreased trade. Despite many years of research, and the introduction of best practice procedures along the supply chain, mycotoxins continue to be a problem. This challenge is framed within the wider context of the increasing impact of climate change on agricultural production and the needs of a growing global population for reliable food sources. The EU-funded MYCOKEY project was set up to develop integrated solutions for effective and sustainable mycotoxin management along food and feed chains. The project concentrates on maize, wheat and barley – the crops usually affected – in Europe and China, which is experiencing an increase in contamination and so is looking for safeguards similar to those of the EU. Early promise for greener solutions The MYCOKEY (Integrated and innovative key actions for mycotoxin management in the food and feed chain) project has announced a notable success with the mycotoxin Ochratoxin A (OTA), as was recently reported in the journal ‘Molecules’. As the article points out, OTA is a mycotoxin produced by several species of the Aspergillus and Penicillium fungi. It presents a risk to human health having been detected in wheat and other cereals (the main source of human exposure), coffee beans, beans, pulses, dried fruit and wine all over the world. In response to the threat, the EU currently has regulation for maximum levels of OTA in 13 different categories of foodstuffs. Additionally, a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) of 120 ng/kg b.w. of OTA, has been set by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The recent journal article announced that the team had developed ‘an unprecedented, environmentally friendly and faster method for the determination of Ochratoxin A.’ The validated method was based on the utilisation of choline chloride (ChCl)-based deep eutectic solvents (DESs). DESs are fluids generally created through the mixture of quaternary ammonium salts with metal salts or hydrogen bond donors. The article reports that the approach is comparable to using, ‘conventional, hazardous and volatile organic solvents (VOCs) typical of the standard and official methods.’ OTA recovery from spiked durum wheat samples, from the ChCl approach was at 89%, compared to 93% for the traditional acetonitrile-water mixture. The approach is also more environmentally friendly: characterised by its biodegradability, recyclability, with low volatility and very low or non-toxicity. Crucially, this also means reduced exposure to toxic chemicals by workers. The team point out that what is especially auspicious for the DES approach is the fact that its physico-chemical properties make it amenable to further tweaking, expanding its utility in the service of maintaining food control and hygiene. Welcome news bearing in mind estimates that mycotoxins cost the European agriculture industry around EUR 3 billion annually, not to mention the benefits to human and animal health. More tools in the pipeline One of the project’s goals is to develop an innovative solution to capture and disseminate knowledge about mycotoxin management, of use to policy makers and knowledge networks. To do this the team are working on an ICT tool dubbed the ‘MycoKey App’ which will quickly provide practical suggestions for intervention and general decision making support, such as accurate information on contamination risk levels and forecasting. The project will also outline alternative and safe ways to use contaminated batches. Complementing these efforts will be the selection and improvement of a range of tools for mycotoxin monitoring. This toolkit will be designed for cost-effective field application during storage, processing and transportation. MYCOKEY is also working to identify prevention, intervention and remediation solutions which are reliable, sustainable and greener. For more information please see: project website



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