Mycotoxins: the risks are very real

​A recent seminar hosted by Alltech, in conjunction with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Food Fortress and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) has confirmed the significant extent of mycotoxin contamination levels within cereals, other grains, and plant protein sources, writes Richard Halleron.
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This is a subject of continuing research from both an animal and nutrition perspective.

Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites, produced when fungi come under stress. They are associated with several health and performance-related challenges that can arise within all aspects of livestock production.

Significant numbers of mycotoxins have been classified up to this point. However, research scientist believe that many others have yet to be identified.

The insidious nature of mycotoxins is amplified by the fact that they cannot be seen by the naked eye. It requires sophisticated laboratory analysis to confirm their presence, in many instances.

Regulatory thresholds are in place, where one specific mycotoxin is concerned: Aflatoxin B1. Where other mycotoxins are concerned, regulatory guidelines are in place, regarding their inclusion rates in compound animal feeds.

However, one of the overarching themes emanating from the seminar was the assertion that mycotoxins can have a significant impact on animal health and performance even at levels deemed to be well below current guideline limits.

AFBI research

AFBI PhD research student, Naoise McKenna, told the seminar that up to 25% of food grade oats are taken out of the human food chain because they breach the current Aflatoxin B1 regulatory thresholds.

She added: “However, the prospect of new regulations being introduced, linked to additional mycotoxins is very significant. If introduced, these would serve to reduce still further the quantities of cereals allowed for inclusion within both human and animal feeds.”

According to McKenna, approximately 80% of the grains and plant proteins produced around the world contain mycotoxins.

“And this figure is set to grow,” she continued. “Mycotoxins used to be considered a challenge for farmers in the southern hemisphere. However, the continuing impact of climate change has resulted in the issue becoming one that now confronts crops production on a global basis. Mycotoxin contamination can be linked to many sources: soil contamination being one of them.”

The AFBI student is part of an AFBI research team looking at ways of minimising mycotoxin levels in growing oat crops. She further explained: “This specific cereal was selected because the panicle structure of the crops makes it harder to see the presence of fungal infections. This is in total contrast to the situation in the likes of wheat and barley.”

Preliminary results from the AFBI trials have confirmed the direct association between plant height and the presence of fungi and associated mycotoxins.

Naoise McKenna added: “This is shedding new light on how best to use plant growth promoters on cereal crops.”

Food Fortress

Robin Irvine is the director of the Food Fortress contaminant testing programme, recognised internationally as a world-leading risk management and feed quality assurance scheme. Courtesy of his presentation to the seminar he reminded delegates of the crisis created by the dioxin in pigmeat crisis of 2008 which was a wakeup call for the industry - highlighting the need for greater risk management of feed materials destined for animal consumption.

Robin Irvine commented: “The required lessons were quickly learnt. The end result was a decision taken by Northern Ireland’s feed compounders, committing the industry to a comprehensive analysis of the risks and a strategic sampling and testing program to monitor the main threats across the range of raw materials and compound feeds. This has evolved into the Food Fortress contaminant testing network for compound feeds system that we have in place today. It has been fully operational for the past decade. Over the years, the scheme has evolved to include raw material importers and feed compounders in the Republic of Ireland.”

The Food Fortress representative emphasised the value of Northern Ireland’s Agri food sector - generating an annual turnover in the region of £6 billion.

He explained: “We produce milk, meat and eggs for approximately 10 million consumers so the vast majority of this output is consumed elsewhere. Half of our food product is destined for Great Britain, with one quarter exported to the European Union and beyond. All of this represents a major contribution to Northern Ireland’s economy, both in terms of the monies generated and the jobs created. The competitiveness of our product in these export markets depends on highly efficient primary production on Northern Ireland farms.

“Animal feeds are an essential element in this process and considerable investment has been made in research and development of diets to produce optimum performance and feed efficiency for all species of farm livestock. Control of anti-nutritional factors such as mycotoxins is a key element in ensuring that the product of our farms is competitive, sustainable and safe for consumers.”

According to Robin Irvine, 82 feed compounders and seven raw material importers (approximately 8 million tonnes of feed production) are fully aligned to scheme with the Institute of Global Feed Security at Queens providing the risk assessments and technical support.

“Mycotoxins currently represent the biggest threat to feed efficiency on farm and in addition to the close surveillance of the regulated toxins we have engaged Queens to provide a much wider sweep of new and emerging mycotoxins,” he commented. “We can easily identify the feed materials which present the greatest risk and offer appropriate guidance to members on the safe use of these materials. Maize is a case in point. This is the most widely used grain and is an excellent energy source for all species of livestock. It comes from various parts of the world at different times of the year, with Canada, Brazil and Ukraine/Black sea the most common origins for shipments to Ireland.

“We need to monitor closely as each new origin comes on stream as the climate and harvest conditions will determine the mycotoxin challenge in the crop.”

The by-products of maize processing currently present the greatest mycotoxin threat with maize distillers and maize gluten derived from industrial ethanol and starch production in the United States show a much more concentrated presence of Deoxynivalenol (DON) and Zearalenone.

“Food Fortress provides guidance to members on the safe and effective use of raw materials to formulate rations which produce optimum performance from different types of livestock,” Robin Irvine explained.

Managing the mycotoxin risk is essential to reduce feed cost and is also a key element in improving the carbon footprint of livestock production emissions by reducing emissions to air and water. Looking ahead, Robin Irvine commented that performance can be impacted well below the current regulatory standards and it is likely that this will be reflected in lower official guidance levels in the future.

The range of mycotoxins which are regulated is likely to be extended as more information becomes available on their impact on livestock.

Institute of Global Food Security

Professor Chris Elliott heads-up the Institute for Global Food Security at QUB. Courtesy of his presentation to the seminar, he reflected on the real difference made by the research teams at Queen’s University in delivering real security for Northern Ireland’s Agri food sector, where risk management and feed security are concerned.

But he also looked to the future, one within which artificial intelligence (AI) will play a key role in further improving the services delivered under the aegis of Food Fortress.

He explained: “We have amassed ten years of data, which can be used to determine trends and help us to develop early warning systems on behalf of the farming and food sectors. The latest AI technologies will allow us to do this. And it is our intention to invest in these cutting-edge analytical systems as a matter of priority.”

Elliott also emphasised the impact that mycotoxins can have on animal health and performance, even when found at very low levels in raw materials and compound feeds.

“Trial work is now confirming the extent of this challenge,” he further explained. “And, of course there is also a direct correlation between animal performance and the carbon footprint generated by a livestock enterprise. If performance levels are reduced in any way, the carbon footprint value of an enterprise will increase.”

According to Professor Elliott, low level mycotoxin contamination can reduce the gross margins generated on a 100,000-bird broiler unit by up to £142,000 per annum.

He added: “The latest figures produced for the poultry sector indicate that mycotoxins can act to enhance carbon footprint values by 8.5%. There is clear evidence to confirm that mycotoxins will act to reduce both animal performance and environmental sustainability levels. These are critically important messages, which must be communicated to farmers and the wider industry.”

Researchers at the Institute for Global Feed Security have also assessed a wide number of the mycotoxin binders that are currently commercially available for both feed milling and on-farm use. According to Chris Elliott, clay and charcoal-based products may also bind vitamins and other important micronutrients contained within a feed ration.

Alltech mycotoxin management

The role of yeast in delivering effective mycotoxin binding technologies was the key theme addressed by Alltech’s Dr Radka Borutova. She confirmed the company’s pioneering three-stage mycotoxin management program, specifically developed to address the mycotoxins challenge, now impacting on the farming and food sectors. These are: risk identification, risk quantification and risk mitigation.

According to Dr Borutova, the Alltech 37+® lab in Dunboyne, Co. Meath is the cornerstone of the company’s mycotoxin management program. This fully accredited, laboratory-based testing service analyses raw materials and finished feed samples for 54 individual mycotoxins. A report is created for each sample that explains not only which mycotoxins are present and at what levels, but what that means specifically for the animals you are feeding.

The Alltech representative commented: “By utilising the Alltech 37+® mycotoxin analysis service, those in the feed and livestock industry can ensure that they are always equipped with the right information to make the most effective decisions to safeguard the health and productivity of their animals, along with the profitability of their businesses.”

Alltech can help to mitigate the mycotoxin contamination risk by working with those in the feed and livestock industry to determine the mostappropriate mycotoxin-binding solution. The Mycosorb®family of mycotoxin binders actto reduce mycotoxin absorption, negating the damaging effects of these contaminants on the health and performance of animals.

In addition, the Alltech® PROTECT™ calculator delivers a better understanding of any potential losses in performance any business can face, as a result of mycotoxins contamination.

The calculator can provide an estimation of the potential impact of mycotoxins in a selected feedstuff, forage, or complete diet based upon the contamination of that sample, as measured by Alltech’s Risk Equivalent Quantity (REQ), the local market pricing and performance characteristics.

The tool is available for a wide range livestock enterprises, including pigs, poultry, and ruminants. It is then possible to determine a return on investment based on improvements in performance when using aMycosorb® binder.

The Mycosorb® range is backed up by more than 25 years of research. Mycosorb A+®isa broad-spectrum adsorbent solution for use in higher-risk mycotoxin challenges. It is designed to reduce the risks to animal health posed by mycotoxins when the threat of contamination is deemed to be higher, or when feed is being delivered to specific animal groups such as breeding groups and young animals.

Meanwhile, Mycosorb® LR has been developed specifically to tackle lower-risk mycotoxin challenges in animal groups such as broilers and layers, and this product is designed for producers who want regular protection from the ever-present threat of mycotoxins in feed, but who prefer not to use a product with a high clay content.