Aflatoxin feed recalls in U.S. point to tighter rules ahead

A series of recent recalls for pet and livestock feed in the United States for a corn-based toxic substance increases the pressure to tighten government food safety rules in proposals now being weighed by that country’s Food and Drug Administration, scientists say.

"With the Food Safety Modernization Act coming into play into the grain industry, we are going to be talking about these things a lot more often," said Charles Hurburgh, a grain quality specialist for Iowa State University.

The Act, signed into law this year, shifts the focus of federal regulators away from responding to food contamination to preventing it. The food industry had until Tuesday to provide formal comments to FDA on "preventive controls and other practices used by facilities to identify and address hazards" such as aflatoxin.

Pet food is a billion-dollar grain-based business while livestock feed, largely based on corn and soybeans, accounts for the primary use of the two biggest row crops in the U.S.

But grains are degraded by crop diseases, including the Aspergillus fungus on corn, which in dry hot growing seasons like 2011 often produces aflatoxin, a carcinogen.

Aflatoxin contamination has prompted a series of pet food and livestock feed recalls this month, including dog, poultry and calf feed from Cargill’s plant in Lecompte, La.

Proctor and Gamble also recalled some of its Iams puppy food produced from its Henderson, N.C. plant, and Advanced Animal Nutrition recalled its Dog Power food.

The FDA standard for aflatoxin in food for human consumption and pet food is 20 parts per billion.

"That’s equivalent to seven kernels in a railcar," Hurburgh said.

More surveillance, more recalls

Crop specialists said they are not surprised by the recalls as the fungus causing aflatoxin was prevalent this summer, especially in southern corn fields stressed by heat and drought.

"What’s happening with the Food Safety Modernization Act is we’re seeing an increase in incidents of reporting because there is more surveillance. With more surveillance we are going to get more positives," said Greg Aldrich, president of feed consultancy Pet Food and Ingredient Technology.

"Livestock feed, pet food and human food companies have already begun to implement everything that is going to be part of the law," said Aldrich, who also teaches grain and animal science at Kansas State University.

Aldrich and other scientists said they will not be surprised to see more recalls given the summer crop stress.

"We stepped up our testing of aflatoxin especially looking at the dry conditions of the summer," said Mike Strain, commissioner of agriculture and forestry for Louisiana.

Whole corn or byproducts of corn or ethanol processing, such as corn gluten feed or distiller’s dried grain, are used to make pet food and livestock feed. The concentration of aflatoxin in corn byproducts is generally three times that of whole corn kernels, specialists said.

"When you look at food safety we continue to test. It shows why we need that traceability system so we can identify the product then go through the entire system and pull that product back," said Strain, whose department found a high level of aflatoxin in Cargill’s poultry feed during a routine test.

Crop specialists say the key to keeping aflatoxin out of the human and animal food chain is to test corn straight off  the field in high-risk years. But tests are pricey at US$10-$15 per sample and take about 10 minutes, which can lengthen already long truck lines at elevators during harvest.

A load of corn containing aflatoxin can also sometimes produce a false negative result because the fungus "clumps."

"Short cuts get taken," said Iowa State’s Hurburgh, referring to testing. "With the Food Safety Modernization Act if you have reason to believe you have an adulterated food, more than 20 parts is an adulterated food — you put it in the system, you’re in big trouble."

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