Aflatoxin: what it is and why it is a threat
Understanding the origins, risks, and prevention strategies against the most dangerous mycotoxins
Aflatoxins, mycotoxins produced by certain species of fungi, represent one of the most serious threats to global food safety and public health. These toxic compounds, known for their potent carcinogenic action, especially on the liver, can contaminate a wide range of food products, from peanuts to corn, cereals to dried fruits, jeopardizing the health of humans and animals alike.
The Hidden Threat in Our Food
Aflatoxins are primarily produced by Aspergillus species, particularly A. flavus and A. parasiticus, in conditions of high heat and humidity. Their presence in foods is difficult to detect without the use of specific analytical techniques, as they are colorless, tasteless, and leave no visible traces. However, their toxicity is among the highest known, with aflatoxin B1 classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), indicating sufficient evidence of its carcinogenicity in humans.
Health Risks and Impacts
Exposure to high doses of aflatoxins can cause acute aflatoxicosis, a potentially lethal condition characterized by acute liver damage, bleeding, and, in extreme cases, death. Even exposure to chronic low doses can have devastating effects, promoting the development of liver tumors, compromising the immune system, and causing damage to various organs. Furthermore, aflatoxins can enter the food chain, contaminating milk and its derivatives when dairy animals consume contaminated feed.
Prevention and Control Strategies
Combating aflatoxins requires a multifaceted approach, including improving farming, harvesting, and food storage practices, using resistant varieties, and biotechnology techniques such as transgenic seeds. Rigorous regulations at the European level aim to limit the presence of these toxins in food, establishing maximum allowable levels and promoting agricultural practices that minimize the risk of contamination.
The Role of Climate Change
Increasing temperatures and humidity, consequences of climate change, could favor the proliferation of aflatoxin-producing fungi, increasing the risk of food contamination. It is therefore crucial to monitor the impact of climate change on food safety and adapt prevention and control strategies accordingly.
Aflatoxins pose a significant challenge to food safety and public health. Awareness of the risks and the adoption of preventive measures are essential to protect the population and ensure food safety.