Mycotoxins: HGCA risk assessments under scrutiny

Higher than usual levels of DON mycotoxins in wheat have prompted millers to demand that from 1 February all human consumption deliveries be accompanied by test results. But the NFU has given the request a cool reception.

According to the National Association of British & Irish Millers the higher levels caused by last year’s difficult harvest mean growers’ safety risk self-assessments, using the HGCA method, cannot ensure that grain intakes are below the EU’s 1250ppb legal limit set in July 2006.

“We anticipate 10% of the crop – milling and feed – exceeding that,” says nabim’s Martin Savage.

Background DON levels are much higher than for two seasons, raising medium risks for post-harvest treatment declarations to high, he explains.

NFU arable adviser Guy Gagen says the HGCA worked hard with industry to devise a robust way for farmers to decide if wheat needs DON testing.

Understand the risk

“The NFU supports using the tool as the most efficient way for farmers and processors to understand the risk of wheat exceeding legal limits.

“We’re disappointed that all farmers will now be asked to provide test results.”

Checking DON levels in a maximum 50t sample, preferably drawn using the HGCA protocol, costs £15-40. But a confirmatory laboratory test may be up to £100, notes the HGCA’s Simon Hook.

“This move shows that more must be done by farmers, the trade and processors to manage DON better,” says Mr Gagen. “We’re concerned that there’ll be significant disruption from this change in policy so late in the marketing year.”

Free testing

Mills should offer free pre-movement mycotoxin testing for the rest of the season to ease pressure caused by nabim’s decision, he suggests.

“The NFU does not expect this procedure to apply after August 2009, when nabim advise us they will return to use of the HGCA risk assessment.”

Farmers incorrectly completing assessments may get more attention from assurance inspectors and Trading Standards officers armed with rejection notices, he warns.

However, many loads sold as “feed” end up being bought by food processors. So growers should understand market destinations before agreeing contracts and insist on knowing exactly where wheat is going well before loading.

Many merchants have been DON testing growers’ samples before delivery – some charging, some not, says the AIC’s Paul Rooke. “Where that’s been happening rejection rates have been a lot lower.

“But it would be nice to get back to risk assessments because there are still big issues over sampling and the tests’ accuracy.”

Assessment revamp hope

FusariumThe HGCA risk assessment, validated in 2006 and 2007 – low and moderate/high risk seasons – was shown to work well, says Harper Adams researcher Simon Edwards.

This year, a record for fusarium mycotoxins, millers say it has not done so for two reasons, he believes.

Last harvest was the most delayed since mycotoxin monitoring began and so was not adequately accounted for.

“The risk assessment will be re-validated this year and it’s likely that a ‘high’ category will be added to the pre-harvest rainfall section.”

Producers may also have reported risk as low or moderate when it was in fact moderate or high.

“This may be seen by some as a low hassle option.” But they should remember that assessments are auditable documents within assurance schemes, he warns.

“I hope that after re-validation, the HGCA risk assessment can be accepted again by the cereal industry for the 2009 harvest season.”

Barometer farms’ reaction

Former Farmers Weekly Barometer farmer Andrew Blenkiron now farms in Dorset.

“I’m just glad we don’t grow milling wheat here.” But having taken part in an HGCA exercise monitoring DON levels elsewhere, he believes risk assessments on individual farms should guarantee grain safety.

“If millers require further tests they should meet the costs as they can to pass them on to their customers – we can’t.”

Barometer farmer Peter Snell, Dorset, fears malting barley may come under similar scrutiny.

“Mycotoxins are an emotive subject, though not to the same degree as pesticides. But last year’s harvest was a one off, or certainly a one in 20 year event, we hope.”

Risk assessments on lorries leaving farms rely on the honesty of those filling the forms or doing the appraisals, he points out.

“Does the public not appreciate that their food is more legislated, accredited, tested, assured and above all of a far higher standard than ever – assuming they buy British?

“Where will it all end? More tests? More standards? Or will those all go out the window when people are hungry?”

Mycotoxin facts

  • High DON levels in wheat
  • New tests demanded
  • One representative sample per 50t
  • £15-40/test


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