U.S. corn quality concerns linger despite better test results

Reuters / The quality of last year’s drought-hit U.S. corn harvest remains under scrutiny because of worries about toxins that flourish in dry weather, despite improved test results for export shipments.

The U.S. Grains Council, which works to promote exports, said in a report on Wednesday that 77.8 per cent of corn samples tested at export markets from October 2012 to February 2013 had no detectable levels of aflatoxin, a byproduct of a mould that can sicken humans and animals if ingested.

A year earlier, 75.2 per cent of samples at export markets had no detectable levels of aflatoxin, according to the council.

The report was based on 397 corn samples collected from export shipments as they underwent a federal inspection process performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Corn must be tested for aflatoxin before being shipped overseas.

“The 2012 crop was superior in quality across a number of key variables to the U.S. 2011 harvest, which was itself a high-quality crop,” the council said.

Still, concerns persist about the quality of corn from the autumn harvest, which is still being used domestically and abroad.

Last year’s historic drought in the U.S. Midwest put everyone from farmers to grain handlers and food industry officials on high alert for aflatoxin because it is usually more prevalent in dry conditions.

Grain dealers typically send the best corn to export markets because importers have strict standards for grain quality. Corn also typically deteriorates during the shipping process.

Exporters have “a great deal of incentive not to offer” corn that tests high for aflatoxin because it cannot be shipped, said Charles Hurburgh, an agricultural engineering professor at Iowa State University.

Of the corn tested for the report, 22.2 per cent contained aflatoxin in levels greater than or equal to five parts per billion but less than the 20-parts-per-billion level at which corn can usually not be exported.

A year earlier, 24.8 per cent of the samples were above five ppb and below 20 ppb, according to the report.

Domestic users of corn have already experienced problems due to elevated levels of aflatoxin.

The Hy-Vee Inc. grocery chain in February recalled five different product lines of its privately branded dog food across eight Midwestern states due to elevated levels of aflatoxin in corn used to make the pet food.

Aflatoxin contamination also prompted a series of pet food and livestock food recalls in 2011.

According to crop insurance data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, payouts for mycotoxins, of which aflatoxin is the most common, totalled nearly $75 million as of February, triple the level of a year ago.

“There are places where buyers need to test every load” of corn for aflatoxin, Hurburgh said. “There is aflatoxin out there.”

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