Mycotoxins 101, part 1: What are they, and how do we test for them?

May 18, 2017

The discovery of the mycotoxin aflatoxin in the 1960s led to a boom in scientific and regulatory interest in mycotoxins. When it was found that aflatoxins can be carcinogenic in animals, an urgent need was sparked to facilitate a greater regulation of mycotoxins in food commodities.

But what are mycotoxins?

“Mycotoxins are the toxins produced by fungi that naturally contaminate a wide variety of agricultural crops,” explained Neogen’s Spencer Jackson. “Their production is influenced by weather, crop variety and rotation, tilling practicing, planting and harvesting time, as well as the cleanliness of storage.”

Mycotoxins resist decomposition and being broken down in digestion, so they remain in the food chain through meat and dairy products. Even temperature treatments, such as cooking and freezing, do not destroy mycotoxins.

Some of the biggest and baddest mycotoxins are produced by molds from the Fusarium and Aspergillus genera. Aflatoxin and ochratoxin are produced by Aspergillus, and deoxynivalenol (DON), fumonisin, T-2/ HT-2 and zearalenone are produced by Fusarium. These mycotoxins can cause severe effects, sometimes chronic, in both humans and animals.

How do people and animals get sick from mycotoxins, and what can we do about it?

Many outbreaks of sickness due to mycotoxins stem from a simple source: the consumption of contaminated food and feed. Because of this, guidelines to maintain high quality products is of paramount importance to the food and feed industries.

“Testing for mycotoxins has become an important regulatory standard throughout the food and feed production process; from farmers, to grain elevators, to the countless facilities producing finished products,” said Jackson. “The finances—and reputation—of producers depends on product quality.”

One quick and easy testing method is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). This antibody-based test provides fully quantitative results not only for mycotoxins, but also for other risks, such as food allergens and drug residues. These tests are extremely easy to perform and provide results in only minutes.

These tests can give both screening and quantitative results, and can be cheaper than sourcing a third party facility for analytical testing methods. Rapid testing solutions allow safety experts to save time, reduce costs and keep testing within their own facilities.

Is it really all that easy?

There are plenty of stumbling blocks to overcome when testing for mycotoxins. The sheer variety of products that require testing can be difficult to manage.

“There is a huge variety of products for humans and animals that undergo mycotoxin testing before reaching consumers,” said Jackson. “The list only continues to grow.”

For part 2 of this post, click here.

This blog post is adapted from a paper written by Neogen’s Spencer Jackson. For a full copy of “Mycotoxin Analysis: Spike and Recovery,” email

Issue 2 of Neogen’s Mycotoxin Insider newsletter is now available! The issue deals with important topics impacting the cereal, pet food, milling and grain industries. Click here to access it.

Neogen offers products to help with mycotoxins. See here for more information.



Category: Food Safety, Agriculture