The European Food Safety Authority is seeking feedback on work examining the public health risks of Ochratoxin A in food.

Ochratoxin A (OTA) is a mycotoxin naturally produced by fungi such as the Penicillium and Aspergillus mold species. It is found in foods including grain products, preserved meats, fresh and dried fruits, and breast milk.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) previously assessed the topic in 2006. Experts concluded OTA accumulates in the kidney and is particularly toxic to the organ. EFSA set a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) of 120 nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg) of body weight.

The main contributors to OTA dietary exposure were cereal products, wine, beer, grape juice, brewed coffee, cocoa and cocoa products, and pork. Estimated exposure levels for average people varied between 15 and 20 ng/kg of body weight per week and for high consumers between 40 and 60 ng/kg of body weight per week.

Consultation on the draft opinion
More recent data suggests OTA may be genotoxic and carcinogenic. In such cases, EFSA experts calculate a margin of exposure (MOE) for consumers. The higher it is, the lower the level of concern for the public. The MOE is a ratio of the dose at which a small but measurable adverse effect is observed and level of exposure to the substance. The estimated MOE for OTA is below 10,000 across most consumer groups, suggesting a possible health concern.

EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) launched a public comment period on the draft scientific opinion. Comments can be submitted until Jan. 24, 2020.

Maximum levels for Ochratoxin A are established at EU level for unprocessed cereals, dried vine fruits, a variety of coffee and coffee beans and wine and grape juice ranging from 0.5 to 10 µg/kg but it has recently been found at high levels in food for which no maximum levels are set.

OTA is rapidly absorbed and distributed but slowly eliminated and excreted leading to potential accumulation in the body.

A total of 72,350 measurements of concentrations of OTA in food, submitted within the last 10 years by 29 European countries and one industry association were used for assessing dietary exposures. Almost half of the data came from Germany and the Netherlands.

Possible health concerns
The highest mean concentrations of OTA were in the categories plant extract formula, flavorings or essences containing licorice extracts, and chili pepper. The top contributors to chronic dietary exposure were preserved meat, cheese, and grains, and grain-based products. Dried and fresh fruit such as grapes, figs, and dates were important in some of the toddlers and other children’s groups. Non-chocolate confectionary was a significant source of exposure in countries where licorice-based sweets are commonly consumed.

Calculated MOEs for non-neoplastic effects were above 200 in most dietary surveys for average and high consumers, so of low health concern. However, they were below 200 in the age groups of infants and toddlers and other children indicating a possible health concern for these groups.

Calculated MOEs for neoplastic effects in most of the surveys were below 10,000 and indicate a possible health concern for some consumer groups.

The CONTAM panel made six recommendations including more occurrence data on OTA in cheese paste versus cheese rind are needed as are more studies on the sequence of events at the carcinogenic target site in the kidney and reliable and representative investigations of levels in human breast milk.

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