EFSA has launched a public comment period on risks to public health from aflatoxins in food.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) concluded dietary exposure of the European population to aflatoxins raises a possible health concern in a draft scientific opinion.

The opinion evaluates toxicity of aflatoxins to humans, estimates dietary exposure of the EU population and assesses human health risks due to the estimated dietary exposure.

Aflatoxins are mycotoxins produced by two species of Aspergillus, a fungus found mostly in areas with hot and humid climates. They are genotoxic, so capable of damaging DNA, and are carcinogenic. Most human exposure comes from contaminated grains and their products but aflatoxin M1 can be found in milk.

The risk assessment included aflatoxin B1, B2, G1, G2 and M1. More than 200,000 analytical results on the occurrence of aflatoxins were used in the evaluation.

Exposure through grain and milk
Grains and grain-based products made the largest contribution to the mean chronic dietary exposure to aflatoxin B1 in all age classes, while liquid milk and fermented milk products were the main contributors to the aflatoxin M1 mean exposure.

Aflatoxin B1 is the mostly frequently found type in contaminated food samples. Aflatoxin-producing fungi are found in areas with a hot, humid climate and aflatoxins in food are a result of pre- and post-harvest fungal contamination. Officials say climate change is anticipated to impact the presence of aflatoxins in food in Europe.

The CONTAM Panel considered that liver carcinogenicity of aflatoxins was the pivotal effect for the risk assessment. It considered that it was not appropriate to establish a tolerable daily intake.

Aflatoxins were previously evaluated by EFSA’s CONTAM panel in 2007. In 2009, the panel issued a statement on the effects for public health of an increase in aflatoxin total for tree nuts other than almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios and in 2012, EFSA published a technical report on impact on dietary exposure of a rise of aflatoxin total for dried figs.

In 2018, a statement from the panel covered the effect of a possible increase of the maximum level for aflatoxin total in peanuts and such processed products, intended for direct consumption or use as an ingredient in foodstuffs.

Basis of health risk finding
Maximum levels exist for aflatoxin B1 and the sum of aflatoxin B1, B2, G1 and G2 in tree nuts, apricot kernels, ground nuts (peanuts) and other oilseeds, dried fruits, cereals, and some species of spices as well as their processed products.

For aflatoxin B1, maximum levels are set for baby food and processed cereal-based food for infants and young children and in dietary foods for special medical purposes intended for infants. In ruminants fed contaminated feed, aflatoxin B1 is metabolized to M1 and rates are set for M1 in raw milk, heat-treated milk and milk used in milk-based products, infant and follow-on formula for children and in dietary foods for special medical purposes intended for infants.

Based on studies in animals, the panel selected a benchmark dose lower confidence limit for an extra cancer risk of 10 percent of 0.4 µg/kg body weight per day for the incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma to be used in a margin of exposure approach for risk characterization. For human data, cancer potency estimates reported by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additive (JECFA) were used.

The CONTAM panel noted calculated margin of exposure values were below 10,000 for some surveys, particularly the younger age groups, which raises a health concern, albeit the high exposure to aflatoxin M1 from milk and dairy products may be limited to a short period in life. Calculated margin of exposure values were also below 10,000 for aflatoxin B1.

In 2005, the EFSA Scientific Committee said that for genotoxic and carcinogenic substances that a margin of exposure of 10,000 or higher would be of low concern for public health.

The panel delivered a range of conclusions including that most data was on aflatoxin B1 and information on other aflatoxins is scarce, studies covered in the opinion add to the weight of evidence that aflatoxin B1 is genotoxic and child health is an emerging area for aflatoxin-related hazard identification.

Deadline for submitting comments is Nov. 15, 2019.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)