Wheat School: The threat of ochratoxin A

Canada has a stellar grain safety record and reputation, but the president of Cereals Canada believes there needs to be more awareness of one specific mycotoxin that can show up after the crop is in the bin: ochratoxin A, or OTA.

OTA is a potent toxin produced by fungus in storage. It’s considered to be carcinogenic in animals and can cause a host of health problems, including kidney damage, in humans.

It’s also measured in parts per billion, with most countries having a maximum allowable limit of five parts per billion, or just a few seeds in an entire cargo shipment.

As technology has advanced to allow testing to the part-per-trillion, customers around the world are increasing scrutiny of mycotoxins in grain shipments, notes Cam Dahl, in this new Wheat School episode.

“It’s something that’s of growing importance. If we go back 20 years, we really couldn’t test it at these levels,” he says. “Our customers are testing for it, and these kinds of mycotoxin issues. We need to start paying more attention because countries around the world are testing and more and more are regulating. This is an area of increasing concern.”

Preventing OTA comes down to good grain storage practices, as the fungus that produces it develops in grain that’s stored at too-high temperatures and moisture levels, he explains. (Read the Canadian Grain Commission’s recommendations here.)

The fungus doesn’t cause visible damage to grain, so it can’t be detected through visual inspection on the farm or at the local elevator. Samples are sent to the lab by the Canadian Grain Commission and grain companies, but Dahl says monitoring and testing are difficult because of the minute levels involved.

There’s also risk in other countries not following rigorous testing procedures, resulting in false positives when testing for 5 parts per billion.

“If samples aren’t taken right and tests aren’t done right and those proper procedures aren’t followed, you get false positives, so we need to work with our customers on getting them to that level of standards in testing and sampling.”

An OTA problem would not only impact the price a producer receives, but Canada’s reputation, says Dahl.

“We need to realize how important this is. This is something we haven’t paid as much attention to in the past as we should have, but it’s of growing importance. Spoiled grain doesn’t belong on the truck, and following those handling and storage practices that keep the soundness of the product is critically important.”

Related: Wheat School: Residues, mycotoxins and testing to the part per trillion

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