Mycotoxins are poisons produced by some fungi (mold) under particular conditions favorable for their formation. Typically the toxin remains in the host which in this case is grain. Visual inspection may be a poor indicator of contamination because mycotoxins may remain after visible evidence of mold dissipates.
Not all byproducts of microbial growth are toxic as demonstrated by different forms of fermentation that produce wonderful foods and beverages. In fact, some byproducts can act as a poison to one species but be harmless or relatively benign to another, such as penicillin — at least in controlled doses.
However, certain mold byproducts and/or their metabolites (compounds after metabolism) are extremely toxic and may have allergenic, carcinogenic, oestrogenic (promoting female hormonal activity), teratogenic (inducing abnormalities in offspring), nephrotoxic (attacking the kidneys), other deleterious effects, and some measurable accumulation in the brain of unknown consequence in humans and animals. Perhaps most insidious is the immunosuppresive effect of many mycotoxins which means that humans or animals will have reduced ability to resist disease and less resilience for recovery.
Many questions regarding mycotoxins lack conclusive answers because the effects are usually chronic rather than acute due to low doses being ingested regularly or from time to time. Often they are a contributing factor rather than a direct cause of disease. Even when they are a direct cause they have the potential to cause a cascade effect that hides their role. Detection and measurement are difficult, doctor awareness is limited, they may be gone from the body when disease is detected, and it is unethical to conduct clinical trials on humans with poison. Much is unknown and what is known is not good news.
Do observations that some mycotoxins interfere with the processing of fatty acids and triglycerides by the liver suggest a link to cholesterol levels — or impact normal function — that promote artery and heart disease? What is the impact of multiple mycotoxins — in effect a toxic cocktail? Do these compounds reinforce one another? Are the effects cumulative? Do individual mycotoxins or some combination of them interact with pharmaceuticals to either dampen effectiveness or to combine into a lethal dose? Do mycotoxins trigger certain genetic predispositions to disease such as polycystic kidney disease? Are some allergies reactions to contaminants rather than the underlying food while the immune system is initially learning? What is to be made of mycotoxins being detected in human blood and mother’s milk?
Some argue along the line that ‘a kid won’t grow up healthy unless he eats so much dirt’ and besides the American food supply is safe!
It is unknown whether there is some enhancement of the immune system with exposure to mycotoxins at low levels similar to the effects from endotoxin. It is unlikely because it is akin to getting a dose of strychnine or arsenic rather than attack by a microbe. If there is initial enhancement It is doubtful that continued exposure increases enhancement and it is more likely deleterious effects or ‘hogging’ of immune system capacity occurs. Furthermore low dose sources such as black pepper may sufficiently fill this questionable role. Grains typically deliver the largest dose of mycotoxins even with lower concentrations due to being such a large component of most diets. Purity in grain thus offers more opportunity to reduce the threat.
In harmony with the latter, most informed scientists conclude that mycotoxins in food present a serious and real health threat to both human and animal populations. Most argue to reduce exposure as near to zero as is practical, and many hold that reduction is imperative. If governments adopt more stringent standards by decree they are faced with limiting the availability of food and ruining markets for powerful constituents. International trade is in tension due to differences over this.
Mycotoxin formation in grain is conditions based — not location based. Formation can occur in the field, during storage, and even during transportation. The ratio for formation among these phases is unknown and is extremely variable from season to season. It is known that more than 500 million bushels of grain per year in the US molds during storage and mycotoxins are formed in some portion. This grain is mixed with sound grain. Sampling and testing to assure purity are problematic so prevention emerges as the best remedy.
Prevention is the best remedy because no mycotoxins will form if no mold growth occurs. The auto industry learned that process control achieved much higher end quality than sampling and testing. Likewise, process control using aeration during storage of grain eliminates fungi growth and mycotoxin formation which is far better than downstream remediation — or worse — denying the danger.
The TGM System prevents fungal growth and insect activity during storage. In addition it can assist with diverting field contaminated and low quality grain to non food/feed use and verify blending and transfers to maintain high purity to assure consumers safer food. This is now available at an affordable price.
The question consumers and the food industry need to ask is “How much toxin in my food is too much?”