How Mycotoxin Management is Critical for Food Safety and Security

10/18/2019

Dr. Yueju Zhao

Senior Research Manager, Mars Global Food Safety Center

Agriculture is vital to the world economy and countless livelihoods. Growing up in China, where farming is a traditional way of life, I have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of weather, pests or crop diseases, on agricultural communities.

It is a little-known fact that around a quarter of the world’s food crops, including many food stables, are affected by a deadly toxic compound naturally produced by fungi.  

Mycotoxins are one of the biggest food safety challenges on the planet. They can grow on widely used foodstuffs such as maize, wheat and peanuts, as well as eggs and milk if consumed by animals. 

More than 300 different types of mycotoxins have been identified; one of the most commonly observed groups that negatively affect human and animal health are aflatoxins. Around 4.5 billion people globally are exposed to these harmful carcinogens through food, yet are either unaware or without alternative options.

Aflatoxin contamination of staples threatens the productivity, well-being and prosperity of farm households, both humans and livestock. Subsistent farmers cannot afford to diversify their diet and are heavily dependent on high-aflatoxin risk crops. They consume around 70 per cent of what they produce selling the better quality produce to generate income. 

Regulation of aflatoxins is strictly enforced by most importing countries. When crops are deemed to be unsafe they are either turned away at the factory gates or destroyed, bringing huge economic losses to communities. Rejected crops may also be eaten by local communities raising significant health concerns. 

Implementing effective measures for mycotoxin management is vital. A multi-pronged, collaborative approach is essential to tackle the mycotoxin challenge from farm to fork, pre-production to post-harvest and through marketing and distribution.  Robust mycotoxin management needs to be supported by enabling policies, regulatory and institutional frameworks, as well as laboratory infrastructure, public education and adequate financial and trained human resources.

I chose to study a PhD in microbiology and enter a career managing mycotoxin risk at the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology in Food Safety to better understand how to help prevent these devastating effects, before they start. In my new role as Senior Research Manager at The Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) I have the opportunity to collaborate with world leading scientists on an international platform to fight mycotoxins.

The Mars GFSC has set ambitious targets focused on mycotoxins, starting with aflatoxins because of the significant threat they pose. At Mars we believe that we have a clear responsibility to help tackle the world’s most significant food safety challenges, but we cannot do this alone. That’s why we are partnering with regulators, academics, NGO’s and even our competitors to tackle mycotoxins head on.

Earlier this week I attended The World Mycotoxin Forum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  This was a welcome opportunity to meet our partners and renowned food safety experts to share knowledge and discuss actions and strategies needed to overcome the mycotoxin challenge, as part of the Mars belief that the world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today.

This week’s World Food Day is also a timely opportunity to raise global awareness about food safety issues and inspire action to resolve the mycotoxin challenge.  

The Mars GFSC will continue to share new insights and discoveries to manage, mitigate and ultimately eradicate mycotoxins, as part of our pledge to ensure safe food for all people, at all times. 

I am excited at the headway the Mars GFSC is making, but there is still much more to be accomplished. There is evidence to suggest that the mycotoxin threat is creeping towards more mature economies due to rising global temperatures. We all have a vested interest in finding a solution. We cannot afford to be complacent.

This blog originally appeared on LinkedIn, you can read more blogs from Dr. Yueju Zhao here.