Ochratoxin A in food poses a health concern for most consumer groups, according to a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessment.
Ochratoxin A (OTA) is a mycotoxin naturally produced by molds that can be found in foodss such as cereals, preserved meats, fresh and dried fruit, and cheese.
Data available since an opinion in 2006 suggest that OTA can be genotoxic by directly damaging the DNA and experts confirmed it can be carcinogenic to the kidney. OTA causes kidney toxicity in different animal species and kidney tumors in rodents.
The European Commission asked EFSA to update the 2006 opinion. In that work, a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) based on toxicity and carcinogenicity to the kidney of 120 nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg) of body weight was established.
Existing regulation and scale of issue
Experts said the overall uncertainty associated with the assessment is high and it is more likely to overestimate than underestimate the risk.
Maximum levels for Ochratoxin A are in place at EU level for unprocessed cereals, dried vine fruits such as currants, raisins and sultanas, green coffee, roasted coffee beans, ground roasted coffee, soluble coffee, wine, and grape juice. They range from 0.5 to 10 micrograms per kilogram.
OTA is rapidly absorbed and distributed but slowly eliminated and excreted leading to potential accumulation in the body.
More than 70,000 measurements of concentrations of OTA in food submitted within the past 10 years by 29 EU countries and the European Vegetable Oil and Protein meal Industry (FEDIOL) were used for assessing dietary exposures. More than half of the data came from Germany and the Netherlands. The highest mean concentrations of OTA were in the categories plant extract formula, flavorings or essences — both containing licorice extracts — and chili pepper.
According to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) portal, between January 2016 and June 2019, 25 of 87 reports of OTA were on cereal‐based products. OTA also occurs frequently in capsicum powder. In the EU, in 2017 and 2018, 41 cases of pepper contamination were reported by the RASFF.
Sorting and other cleaning procedures are effective in decreasing OTA content in commodities such as nuts, cocoa and coffee beans, according to officials. Controlled environmental conditions, mainly humidity and temperature, may avoid fungal growth during storage. High temperatures, achieved during the roasting process, were shown to considerably decrease the mycotoxin.
For calculating chronic dietary exposure to OTA, food consumption and body weight data were accessed. The most important contributors were preserved meat, cheese and grains and grain‐based products. Non‐chocolate confectionary was a significant source of exposure in countries where licorice‐based sweets are common such as Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.
The estimation of chronic dietary exposure resulted in mean and 95th percentile levels ranging from 0.6 to 17.8 and from 2.4 to 51.7 ng/kg body weight per day, respectively.
Experts calculated a margin of exposure (MOE). This tool is used by risk assessors to consider possible safety concerns from presence in food of substances which are genotoxic and carcinogenic. The work resulted in MOEs of more than 200 in most consumer groups, indicating a low health concern with exception of MOEs for high consumers in younger age groups, showing a possible health concern.
As part of a public consultation, EFSA received comments from 15 different parties including American Pistachio Growers, European Dairy Association and FoodDrinkEurope.
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