With the news last week that a scientist is studying Salmonella in space and, more importantly, gleaning important insights from the study, we can hope that this pathogen might become easier to control in petfood plants and everywhere else it shows up. (Because, after all, it's in the environment nearly everywhere.) That might help decrease the number of petfood recalls related to Salmonella each year.
Petfood manufacturers also have to be ever vigilant for another common contaminant, mycotoxins, which tend to show up in grain-based ingredients and become even more prevalent after the type of drought the US suffered last year. In fact, another recent petfood recall, of the grocery chain Hy-Vee's private label products, shone a spotlight on this risk.
"Mycotoxins, including aflatoxin, typically arise as a result of an environmental stress that facilitates mold infestation," says Duarte Diaz, PhD, president of A to Z Mycotoxins. "For the aflatoxin-producing molds, the most significant influence is damage to the seed coat (pericarp) brought on by extreme drought and heat."
In other words, the extreme conditions in the US last year -- one of the worst droughts in history -- were ideal for the growth of mold in corn and other grains, producing a hotbed for mycotoxin growth. According to a Reuters.com article, crop insurance data from the US Department of Agriculture shows payouts for mycotoxins have reached almost US$75 million this year, three times the level of a year ago. Further, nearly 85% of the claims have been filed in six states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri), all among the states hit hardest by the drought.
This is likely not news to many in the US petfood industry; the Reuters article quotes Pat Tovey, director of technology and regulatory compliance for the Pet Food Institute, about how high the industry's awareness is because of the prevalence and seriousness of mycotoxin contamination. But do you know what to do this year to protect your products?
Dr. Diaz offers some tips:
- Carefully monitor corn fields (or ensure your suppliers do) for aflatoxin-producing (olive-green) molds; if mold is visible on more than 10% of corn ears, the corn should be harvested early and dried immediately, with less than 15% moisture.
- Suppliers should have monitoring and alert systems in place to watch for contamination and prevent its entry into petfood ingredients and products.
- Manufacturers should have their own testing and analysis systems for mycotoxin monitoring; there are many methods, services and labs available to help. Reference labs should use AOAC-approved methods or validated in-house methods and should have extensive quality control programs that include frequent analysis of reference materials, daily quality checks, training and anticipation in check sample programs.
Find more information from Dr. Diaz in his Petfood Forum 2012 presentation. You can also monitor current US drought conditions through the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. (The good news is that rainfall and recent snowstorms in the US Plains and Midwest are starting to alleviate drought conditions.)
Sampling for aflatoxin and other mycotoxins is a science unto itself; Charles Hurburgh, PhD, of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative Program at Iowa State University offers helpful information in an article. You can find more articles on the program's website.