AN INVESTIGATION has begun into how ergot-contaminated packs of whole grain wheat were put on sale in an award-winning London food shop.

Ergot – a fungus that infects wheat and grass weeds – produces toxins that can cause nausea, hallucinations and abortion. 

The UK operates a zero-tolerance approach to ergot in grain for human consumption, according to the Food Standards Agency.

“This is a serious issue,” said an agency spokeswoman. “We will review the information and take the necessary action.”

The ergot was first spotted in 1kg bags of wheat by FARMERS WEEKLY readers Charles and Ann Looker.

The Lookers farm in Cambridgeshire and bought two packs of the whole grain wheat from Planet Organic – twice named Soil Association retailer of the year.

“When we opened the first pack, the ergot was clearly visible,” Mr Looker said.

Mr Looker contacted his local council on Dec 19 but it took until Wed, Jan 19 before an environmental health officer took the wheat away.

Frustrated by the inaction Mr Looker took the wheat to the National Institute of Agricultural Botany‘s research centre in Cambridge where plant pathologist David Kenyon confirmed the presence of ergot.

“As soon as we broke the pack open we could see the ergot. Within the 1kg pack we found four-and-a-half ergots – a very high level indeed,” Dr Kenyon said.

“I have seen samples of organic wheat cleaner than this straight off the combine. It has not been cleaned.”

“The system that should prevent this happening has broken down and we need to ask why.

This is an issue for all arable farmers – not just organic – as ergot has become more common, he added.

His comments were echoed by the Soil Association which is carrying out its own investigation.

“The problem has increased over the past five years which may be due to a rise in minimum tillage. It is not a problem of the organic sector alone,” a statement read.

“The affected product is being withdrawn from sale. The supplier has been contacted and instructed to notify any other outlets where the grain could be on sale.”

Planet Organic founder Renee Elliott said: “We have removed the product and are working to find out how this happened.

“While it is not a major product line, I‘m amazed that this was found as long ago as December and nobody thought to contact us so that we could remove it.”

Meanwhile Mr Looker‘s district council Huntingdon blamed delays on uncertainty over whether Trading Standards or Environmental Health should take action.

“It fell down the gap in the middle,” a spokeswoman explained.

jonathan.riley@rbi.co.uk