The most important type of mycotoxin associated with corn grain is aflatoxins. There are several types of aflatoxins produced by different species of Aspergillus, with the most prominent species being A. flavus. Growth of the fungus and aflatoxin contamination of grain can occur in the field prior to harvest or in storage. However, contamination prior to harvest is considered to cause most of the problems associated with aflatoxin. A. flavus grows well in hot, dry environmental conditions or where drought occurs over an extended period of time. It can be a serious problem in the southern United States, where hot and dry conditions are more common. The fungus usually attacks only a few kernels on the ear and often penetrates kernels through wounds produced by insects. Under drought conditions, it also grows down silks into individual kernels.
There are four types of aflatoxin naturally found in foods – aflatoxins B1, B2, G1 and G2. These four aflatoxins are commonly referred to as “aflatoxins” or “total aflatoxins.” Aflatoxin B1 is the most commonly found aflatoxin in food and feed and is also the most toxic. Research has shown that B1 is a potent, naturally-occurring carcinogen in animals, with a strong link to human cancer incidence. Additionally, dairy cattle will metabolize aflatoxin to a different form of aflatoxin called aflatoxin M1, which may accumulate in milk.
Aflatoxins express toxicity in humans and animals primarily by attacking the liver. The toxicity can occur from short-term consumption of very high doses of aflatoxin-contaminated grain or long-term ingestion of low levels of aflatoxins, possibly resulting in death in poultry, the most sensitive of the animal species. Livestock may experience reduced feed efficiency or reproduction, and both human and animal immune systems may be suppressed as a result of ingesting aflatoxins.
The FDA has established action levels for aflatoxin M1 in milk intended for human consumption and aflatoxins in human food, grain and livestock feed products (see table below).
The FDA has established additional policies and legal provisions concerning the blending of corn with levels of aflatoxins exceeding these threshold levels. In general, the FDA currently does not permit the blending of corn containing aflatoxins with uncontaminated corn to reduce the aflatoxin content of the resulting mixture to levels acceptable for use as human food or animal feed.
Corn exported from the United States must be tested for aflatoxins according to federal law. Unless the contract exempts this requirement, testing must be conducted by FGIS. Corn above the FDA action level of 20 ppb cannot be exported unless other strict conditions are met. This results in relatively low levels of aflatoxins in exported grain.