The United States has limited controls to manage aflatoxin contamination in peanuts for export to Europe, according to findings from an audit carried out because of regular detection of non-compliances.
Officials from DG Sante, the European Commission’s unit for food safety and health, said there was scope to develop and improve good practices across the industry to help reduce levels of aflatoxin in peanuts.
The audit assessed if the systems to control aflatoxin contamination in peanuts sent to the European Union comply with, or are equivalent to, EU laws to ensure limits for contaminants are respected. It found the legal framework primarily addresses peanuts for the domestic market and imports. There are no specific standards for peanuts intended for the EU.
It is possible for processors to export a lot to Europe which has, in the analysis of another sample from the same lot, had a result exceeding EU limits, according to DG Sante.
Scale of the problem
European maximum levels for aflatoxin contaminations in groundnuts and processed products for direct human consumption are 2 micrograms per kilogram for B1 and 4 mcg/kg for the sum of B1, B2, G1 and G2. If they are subject to sorting, or other physical treatment, before consumption or use as an ingredient in foodstuffs the limit for B1 is 8 mcg/kg and for the sum of B1, B2, G1 and G2 it is 15 mcg/kg.
The FDA has established an action level of 20 mcg/kg or parts per billion for total aflatoxins (B1, B2, G1 and G2). In practice, industry voluntarily applies a limit of 15 mcg/kg total aflatoxins for peanuts.
The audit was due to regular Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications in recent years for aflatoxins in peanuts imported from the U.S. There were 85 notifications concerning aflatoxins in nut products and seeds in 2018. So far this year, there have been 17 alerts.
The visit in October 2019 reviewed controls on the primary production, processing and export of peanut products. Three laboratories — two private and one government lab — involved in issuing certificates of aflatoxin analyses, four processors involved in blanching, shelling and processing of peanuts and one farmer as well as a buying point and interim store were visited.
Data from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service shows the U.S. exported more than 30,600 tons of groundnuts (peanuts) in shell to the EU in 2018, almost 110,000 tons groundnuts shelled, nearly 7,500 tons of groundnuts otherwise prepared or preserved, and 310 tons of processed peanuts. There is a minimum of 10 percent physical and identity checks on consignments imported into the EU.
The American Peanut Council (APC) has developed a voluntary pre-export program and most companies exporting to the EU have agreed to comply with it. It includes a system of official sampling and aflatoxin analysis of raw peanuts intended for the EU. At the time of the audit, 10 shelling companies, one blanching firm with various sites and one lab with several sites had signed up to the program.
No official controls are done to verify compliance and there is no supervision of consignments destined for the EU for aflatoxin contamination. Compliance with the voluntary pre-export program is not a requirement to export peanuts to the EU.
There is no time limit on validity of aflatoxin analysis results conducted prior to export to the EU. One processing plant visited said they considered such results would be valid for up to a year prior to export.
The voluntary pre-export program allows peanuts exported to the EU to be tested for aflatoxin prior to blanching in a separate plant and not re-tested after blanching before export.
Plant inspection reports and checklists reviewed by the auditors indicated state inspectors do not do a detailed or consistent assessment of the processing plants’ hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plans. The audit team reviewed a number of HACCP plans which did not include a comprehensive assessment and documentation of the management of pertinent risks related to aflatoxin along the processing steps.
The audit team found there was considerable variation in how samples for aflatoxin analysis of peanuts destined for the EU are taken.
Aggregate samples are often not weighed or mixed upon being taken or upon arrival in the testing lab where they are divided into sub-samples. There is a lack of monitoring, supervision or verification to ensure official sampling instructions are followed to ensure the method of sampling consignments is equivalent to EU regulation.
“Given the availability of multiple official samples from individual lots and limited official supervision in the processing of results for exported consignments, it is possible for processors to export a lot to the EU which has, in the analysis of another sample from the same lot, given a result exceeding EU limits.”
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)