The most important type of mycotoxin associated with corn is aflatoxin. There are several types of aflatoxin produced by different species of Aspergillus, with the most prominent species being A. flavus. The growth of the fungus and aflatoxin contamination of grain can occur in the field before harvest or in storage. However, contamination before 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. It can be a serious problem in the southern United States, where hot and dry conditions are 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, commonly referred to as “aflatoxin” or “total aflatoxin.” 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 B1 to a different form of aflatoxin called aflatoxin M1, which may accumulate in milk.
Aflatoxin expresses 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 aflatoxin, possibly resulting in death for 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 aflatoxin. The FDA has established action levels for aflatoxin M1 in milk intended for human consumption and aflatoxin in human food, grain and livestock feed in parts per billion (ppb).
The FDA has established additional policies and legal provisions concerning the blending of corn with levels of aflatoxin exceeding these threshold levels. In general, the FDA currently does not permit corn blended to reduce the aflatoxin content to be sold in general commerce.
Unless the contract exempts it, corn exported from the United States must be tested by FGIS for aflatoxin according to federal law. Corn above the FDA action level of 20.0 ppb cannot be exported unless other strict conditions are met. This results in relatively low levels of aflatoxin in exported grain.