Serbian scandal highlights fungal poison danger

A scandal over contaminated milk in the Balkans highlights a global threat to food safety: Aflatoxins are naturally occurring poisons produced by fungi that infect many food crops worldwide.

Serbian Agriculture Minister Goran Knezevic says the country’s milk is safe to drink.

Tests late last month had found aflatoxins in some milk at levels higher than permitted under a law passed two years ago.

The government has now raised those limits ten-fold. But Knezevic notes that this higher level is considered safe in the United States and many other countries.

Aflatoxins can get into milk through contaminated animal feed.

Keeping it out of feed has been a challenge recently, and not just in Serbia, says U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Peter Cotty.

“We have seen increased levels of aflatoxins this year associated with the very hot, dry conditions we had, particularly in our maize production regions in the U.S,” he said.

Heat and drought put stress on crops, making it easier for the fungi that produce aflatoxin to move in.

Cotty says while high levels of the chemical in any food are a concern.

“We’re more concerned when aflatoxins occur in a staple food that people consume a great deal [of],” he said.

For example, in parts of Africa, people eat maize at every meal. And the warm environment and poor drying and storage practices make aflatoxin a perennial threat. There was a major outbreak in 2004, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s Ranajit Bandyopadhyay.

“More than 200 people in Kenya died due to aflatoxin poisoning. However, even more dangerous is its slow poisoning effect,” he said.

The poisonous fungi growing on peanuts, maize and other crops in these areas are a leading cause of cancer and more, says Peter Cotty.

“They’re also associated with stunting in humans, reduced development in children. They’re also associated with reduced functioning of the immune system. And they can actually cause your liver to die,” he said.

To lower the risk, farmers in Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere are fighting fungus with fungus.

In a natural method Cotty and Bandyopadhyay developed, farmers spread their fields with grain infected with fungi very similar to those producing aflatoxin.

“And those fungi compete with aflatoxin producers and displace them in the environment. And that results in 80 to 90 percent reduction in toxin in crops with a single application,” said Cotty.

But testing for the toxin along the supply chain is the last line of defense.

And it’s a test Serbia’s dairy farmers insist they’ve passed.