Author: Andrii Karpiuk
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters and in this article we review how Ukrainian grain stakeholders face mycotoxin-related difficulties in an expanding export market. We will discuss about conducting mycotoxin risk management, which analysis methods they use, and why they choose them.
The impact of mycotoxins on human health and on the economy
Mycotoxins are toxic compounds naturally produced by certain types of molds. Mycotoxins are a significant food safety concern in agriculture; 25% of the global food crops contain mycotoxins above Codex and EU limits (Eskola et al. 2020) and, just in the USA, the cost of mycotoxin management was estimated one billion dollars per year or more (Robens J and Kardwell K, 2003).
Contamination on this scale has serious consequences. Today about 400 mycotoxins are known (Berthiller et al. 2007) and they accounted for about 30% of food rejections at European Economic Area (EEA) borders between 2010 and 2019. When mycotoxins enter the food supply, they can spread quickly at every point along the chain, affecting everyone from farmers and grain mills to consumers.
Contaminated food and feed products represent a major threat to humans and animal health. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 4.5 billion people in the world are exposed to unmonitored levels of aflatoxins, leading to about 155 000 liver cancer cases annually (Marchese et al. 2018). Aflatoxin B1 has been classified by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a Class 1 human carcinogen.
Ukrainian grain production and exports are growing
For the 2018-2019 marketing year, Ukraine exported a record-breaking 50.4 million tons of cereals, legumes, and flour, 10.5 million tons more than the previous marketing year (The Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture of Ukraine 2019).
The US, the world’s largest corn producer, harvested 366.3 million tons of corn in the 2018-2019 marketing year, representing nearly 33% of the world’s production. The second-largest corn producer in the world is China, which harvested 257.3 million tons of corn in the 2018-2019 marketing year. Brazil rounds out the top three with 101 million tons. The next place in terms of production is occupied by the EU (64.2 million tons), which is 13 million tons ahead of Argentina. Ukraine earned the sixth position (35.8 million tons) (FAO 2019). Figure 1 breaks down grain production among the top ten producers in the world.
Fig. 1: Top ten grain producers in the world, (USDA, Agribusinessinukraine.com)
Worldwide corn exports for the 2018-2019 marketing year amounted to USD 33.9 billion. The United States earned the largest amount from corn exports at USD 12.9 billion, accounting for 38.1% of the worldwide corn export market. Argentina earned the second largest amount from corn exports at USD 4.2 billion with Brazil following closely at USD 4.1 billion (12.1%). Ukraine ranks fourth with USD 3.5 billion (10.3%) in corn exports.
In the current marketing year (2019-2020), Ukraine earned USD 9.6 billion for grain exports and became the second-leading earner from grain exports (UNIAN 2020) after exporting 56.2 million tons. Exports for the 2019-2020 season were 6.63 million tons (13.4%) higher than for the same period the previous marketing year (49.6 million tons) (Proagro Group 2020).
According to the Ukrainian Grain Association, the growth of grain exports between 2018 and 2022 is projected to be nearly 60% larger than during the previous period from 2014-2018 (Fig. 2).
Ukraine produces three times more grain than it consumes. In the coming years, according to UGA projections, exports will grow much faster than domestic consumption.
Fig. 2: Ukrainian grain production and export evolution, (UGA)
Maize — the main agricultural export
Figure 3 shows that maize is the largest agricultural commodity of Ukraine.
Fig. 3: Agricultural production in Ukraine (State Statistics Service of Ukraine, Agribusinessinukraine.com)
Today it is hard to imagine that in 2000 Ukrainian domestic corn production was only 3.8 million tons. Last year it reached a record high of about 36 million tons, nearly a tenfold increase. Every year, Ukraine manages to increase this indicator, raising yields and expanding sown areas. Corn production since 2008 has more than tripled from 11.4 to 35.8 million tons and corn exports have more than quintupled from 5.5 to 29.5 million tons (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: Ukrainian corn production and exports (State Statistics Service of Ukraine, Agribusinessinukraine.com)
The EU is the main purchaser of Ukrainian grain
The EU is the largest purchaser of Ukrainian grain (Fig. 5). The Netherlands (USD 379 million), Spain (USD 342 million), Italy (USD 215 million), Poland (USD 178 million), and Germany (USD 157 million) are the largest importers of grain from Ukraine. The European Union absorbs increasing amounts of Ukrainian maize today, with imports rising from 338 000 tons 15 years ago to over 11 million tons in 2018.
Following the May 2018-April 2019 season, Ukraine became one of the top three countries from which EU countries imported mostly agricultural products (European Commission 2019).
During the first quarter of 2019, exports of agricultural products from Ukraine to EU countries increased by 24.4% compared to the same period in 2018.
Fig. 5: Top importers of Ukrainian grain (UGA)
EU border rejections
Since 2008, 5,748 cases of border rejections notifications about food/feed contaminated by mycotoxins have been recorded on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASF), of which 5,423 and 361 are food and feed materials, respectively.
46 notifications about products from Ukraine. By notification type there was information for attention, alert, border rejection – 11, 2, 14, 19 in accordance.
In product category “cereals and bakery products” it was 105 for food products type, of which 6 from Ukraine (1 – wheat flour, 1 – organic spelt, 1 – matzo (passover bread), 1 – millet groats, 2 – buckwheat).
In product category “feed materials” it was 298 cases of border rejections mainly in groundnuts and peanuts, of which only 1 case in 2013: aflatoxins in maize, which is more than 3 times higher than allowed limits.
The last case of a border rejection of Ukrainian grain was in 2013 when aflatoxins were found in maize at about 100 ppb, more than 3 times higher the maximum limit allowed.
How Ukrainian agricultural companies are managing mycotoxin risk
In order to report how the exporters are managing the mycotoxin risk we interviewed some key persons in this field:
- representatives of the main grain association of companies Ukrainian Grain Association – adviser on Food and Feed Safety to The President of UGA Vadym Turianchyk;
- one major player Nibulon – deputy head of production and technological laboratory for chemical and biological research Anna Kara;
- one leading public research institution National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine – associate professor of NULES of Ukraine, head of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Valerii Tsvilikhovskii.
Ukrainian Grain Association (UGA)
The Ukrainian Grain Association is an association of grain producers, processors, and exporters. The organization was founded in 1998 to protect the legitimate common interests of its members, to promote the formation and development of the grain market in Ukraine, and to create the necessary organizational conditions for the interaction of its members. The members of the UGA are internationally-known corporations, the biggest Ukrainian exporters, and grain manufacturers who export up to 90% of Ukrainian grain crops annually. The UGA is a partner of IGC and GAFTA.
Nibulon is one of the leaders in the Ukrainian agricultural market and is engaged in grain production and export, logistics, and shipbuilding. The company has 50 transshipment terminals, elevators, and production branches. Nibulon has its own shipbuilding and ship repair yard as well as a modern cargo fleet consisting of 79 self-propelled and non-self-propelled vessels, as well as a dredger. Nibulon cultivates 82 thousand hectares of leased agricultural land.
National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine (NULES)
The National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine is a leading public university in the field of agriculture in Ukraine. More than 26 thousand students and more than 600 graduates, PhD students, and researchers study at 3 educational and research institutes and 13 university departments in Kyiv and 10 separate units in regional universities.
Do you face a problem of mycotoxin contamination in crops/feed?
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii [NULES of Ukraine]: “The potential risk of certain types of mycotoxins to human and animal health are usually the reason why an infected crop becomes unfit for human consumption and animal feed.”
Vadym Turianchyk [UGA]: “The main difficulties are that you cannot detect mycotoxins without a laboratory or express testing. It is impossible to see them or even smell them. In practice, we know of situations when cargo had a moldy smell but, in fact, High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) testing found that the main mycotoxins were below the Level of Quantification (LOQ). All grain buyers require that purchased goods meet certain requirements and they must comply with the regulations of the destination country or international standards like GMP+. It is important for every exporter to have an opportunity to check for mycotoxins as early as possible in the chain rather than to find problems in a shipping vessel which in the end may cost the company millions of dollars due to border rejection and the loss of reputation as a reliable supplier.”
Anna Kara ([Nibulon]: “Our company takes the control of raw materials quite seriously, so we have organized our production and technological laboratory, which tests the quality and safety of cereals, legumes, oilseeds, feed, and food products produced by Nibulon, Ltd. and/or other manufacturers. Since 2012, there have been no problems with mycotoxin contamination. Even in those samples in which we found mycotoxins, the concentration values did not exceed the maximum limits”.
What types of mycotoxins do you test for in what types of commodities? Why?
Vadym Turianchyk: “Mycotoxin presence in crops/feed depends on the conditions during the growing and storage of crops. It is recommended to test frequently in the supply chain from the earliest stage of crop storage. For sites in Ukraine it is obligatory to have a developed and implemented hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) system. Every site should perform a regular risk assessment based on different sources of information, official statistics, statistics from surveyors or agronomists, customer requirements, requirements of destination points for cargo (EU Regulation, Codex Alimentarius, etc.), scientific articles, etc., for physical, chemical, and microbiological hazards, including mycotoxins. So basically, this includes every site that works with export grains that have been through the HACCP system implementation.”
“Most cereals, such as corn, sorghum, millet, wheat, rice are susceptible to fungi-producing mycotoxins. One of the main causes of mycotoxin contamination after harvesting is infestation by insects due to the mechanical damage of the grains during the harvesting produce, which facilitates the infection of crops with fungi. Harvest time, drying method, storage methods and conditions, and processing requirements also contribute to contamination in cases where these technological processes have been violated.”
Anna Kara: “All crops that are grown, processed, transshipped, and exported are tested to fulfill the terms of contracts and prevent contamination of any consignments. Usually, we test for aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, zearalenone, vomitoxin, T-2, HT-2 toxins, fumonisins, and citrinin, because their levels are regulated by Ukrainian and international standards.”
How often do you test crops/feed for mycotoxins? Why?
Vadym Turianchyk: “Temperature, humidity, and damaged grains are the main factors in the growth and development of fungi-producing mycotoxins. Everything depends on risk assessment and crop conditions. If corn or wheat is delivered from regions with high humidity like the western or northern parts of Ukraine, I would suggest checking every batch delivered by a farmer or silo with an express analyzer; if the grain is from the east, the south, or parts of the central area, composite testing of several batches is recommended.”
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “It all depends on production and market needs. Large agricultural companies are inspected more frequently and mycotoxin tests are expensive for farmers.”
Anna Kara: “We believe that the presence of mycotoxins should be monitored constantly as they are natural contaminants, extremely toxic, and affect the health and immunity of both animals and humans.”
At what stage of production do you test crops/feed for mycotoxins?
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “This inspection is mainly carried out on raw materials during the production of food, baby food, and feed.”
Vadym Turianchyk: “From practice, by express test strips upon intake at inland silos or ports and by HPLC before shipment.”
Anna Kara: “Upon arrival at the silos, during batch formation, during loading on the vessel, and composite sample testing after loading.”
Occurrence of mycotoxins in Ukrainian grain
Vadym Turianchyk: “In Ukraine, we most often see mycotoxins in corn and wheat which both are more than 50% of total exported crops. Based on statistics from surveyor members of the Ukrainian Grain Association, zearalenone, ochratoxin, A and DON were detected in wheat; aflatoxins, zearalenone, and T-2/HT-2 in corn; while no quantifiable mycotoxin were detected in barley.”
According to maize testing results from survey company members of the Ukrainian Grain Association, the average presence of aflatoxin B1 and total aflatoxins was less than 2 ppb from 1229 Ukrainian samples tested. The levels of total aflatoxins (43 ppb), ochratoxin A (57 ppb), vomitoxin (2316 ppb), fumonisins (7291 ppb), and T-2 and HT-2 toxins (1070 ppb) were above the maximum limits for foodstuffs but lower than the limits for animal feed (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6: Minimum, Average, and Maximum Levels of tested maize (UGA)
Less than 1% of the samples tested exceeded the allowed limit
During the last 6 months in Ukraine, aflatoxin B1 exceeded the allowed limit in only 9 samples: 6 samples had higher than 5 ppb (Foodstuffs – Commission Regulation [EC] No 1881/2006) and 3 samples had higher than 20 ppb (Animal feed – Directive 32/2002/EC, Rec. 2006/576/EC) out of 1229 samples tested.
11 ochratoxin A samples, 3 vomitoxin samples, 1 fumonisin sample, and 4 T-2 and HT-2 toxin samples were higher than the limit for foodstuffs, accounting for less than 1% of samples tested (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: Outlets of tested maize (UGA)
How Ukrainian agricultural companies are testing mycotoxins
On September 2, 2015, the State Service of Ukraine for Food Safety and Consumer Protection was established in Ukraine to centralize control of food safety and avoid duplication of the same functions by different institutions (State service of Ukraine on food safety and consumer protection 2020).
For Ukraine’s testing laboratories, the accreditation body of the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) in Ukraine is the National Accreditation Agency of Ukraine (National Accreditation Agency of Ukraine 2020).
Where and how is testing performed?
Vadym Turianchyk: “Usually, exporters use external labs, as conducting tests themselves requires additional costs for equipment, premises, trained staff, and regular operational costs. This is especially true for exporters that do not have their own facilities for storage or transshipment. All external labs with whom exporters work are usually internationally-recognized labs that have been approved by FOSFA and GAFTA and that have ISO 17025 accreditation.”
Anna Kara: “All exported products are checked in our laboratory upon receipt in small batches for crops and during the formation of export batches (shipping lots and composite samples). Our laboratory checks for the presence of toxic elements (heavy metals), mycotoxins, pesticides, radionuclides, and GMOs.”
What tools/methods do you use to test for mycotoxin contamination? Why?
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “Immunochromatographic and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) are most often used in Ukraine. After these, we use HPLC with a diode matrix and fluorescence analysis (with derivatization for aflatoxins and T-2 and HT-2 toxins). Regional and large commercial and government laboratories use HPLC with mass spectrometric analysis.”
Vadym Turianchyk: “Based on experience and feedback from labs, it is preferable to test mycotoxins using HPLC/MS/MS because of its high selectivity and accuracy compared to other techniques.”
Anna Kara: “Two methods are used in our laboratory: enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and HPLC.”
What were the main factors that influenced your decision to choose your method of mycotoxin contamination testing?
Vadym Turianchyk: “For exporters, it is important to be confident in lab results; labs that provide services are interested in providing results that clients can be confident in. It is very simple.”
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “In Ukraine, the arbitrage method of mycotoxin control in products is HPLC.”
Anna Kara: “Accuracy of testing.”
What disadvantages do you see in current mycotoxin testing methods?
Vadym Turianchyk: “The only disadvantage is testing time. When you perform testing at intake and wagons and trucks are waiting for results, it is important to receive quick and accurate results. That is why express testing at intake is preferable even with less accurate results to save costs on delays in unloading trucks and wagons.”
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “Sample preparation plays an important role in the speed of sample testing. Therefore, the improvement of sample preparation with the yield in the aliquot of different chemical groups of mycotoxins will accelerate the instrumental analysis.”
Anna Kara: “The cost of testing. Modern methods are accurate and quick but require controls using fairly expensive standards and reference materials. Furthermore, the reagents with the required degree of purity are quite expensive, too.”
How do you sample (do you use your resources or an external lab)?
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “Commission Regulation (EC) No 401/2006 establishes methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of the levels of mycotoxins in foodstuffs. This is the document you need to adhere to. However, there are separate customer instructions that can be used. Then a laboratory checks the aliquot provided by the client.”
Vadym Turianchyk: “There are terminals that do not have their own lab staff and instead use external surveyors for sampling and quality testing.”
What sampling issues do you face?
Valerii Tsvilikhovskii: “The main problem is to properly select and prepare a sample for laboratory analysis. Uneven distribution of the test analyte (mycotoxins) in the sample may give poor convergence in the final result. Therefore, sampling regulations must be followed.”
Anna Kara: “To get the right result you need to have a representative sample, as mycotoxins are often located in the mass of the grain non-homogeneously. For large batches, the size of the sample is also large, which complicates its further processing.”
Vadym Turianchyk: “The only issue we face is the lack of knowledge and training. That is why only experienced and well-trained staff are allowed to perform sampling following valid DSTU and ISO standard requirements.”
How do you mitigate the risks of “bad” sampling?
Vadym Turianchyk: “Regular training of own staff, and developing and implementing procedures which meet GAFTA and FOSFA requirements.”
Anna Kara: “We warn customers that they are responsible for correctly sampling and supplying a representative sample in the case of providing products for analysis in our laboratory.”
Do your customers ever perform audits/inspections in your facilities to check the contamination level of the available stocks? If they do, can you tell us what kind of companies they use?
Vadym Turianchyk: “Performing audits/inspections in the facilities and checking the contamination level of the available stocks is not a typical practice for crop exports. Usually, exporters perform their own audits of storage facilities, transshipment facilities that they expect to use for loading cargo for export, or their own stocks to make sure that cargo they bought at the inland silo is of good quality and in good condition.”
Ukrainian maize shows lower risk of aflatoxin contamination
As a result of the evaluation of the available analysis results of aflatoxin B1 in maize, GMP+ International, a company specialized in food commodity certification adjusted recently the risk profile of Ukrainian maize, shifting it from Medium to Low risk (GMP + International 2020).
We hope this information will help some Food Business Operators manage the risks of mycotoxins more effectively. Here are the main conclusions:
- Contaminated crops may cost companies millions of dollars and checking mycotoxins as early as possible can reduce such losses.
- Terms of contracts, financial risks, and HACCP regulation are the main drivers to check for mycotoxins.
- Decisions to test or not to test should be based on risk assessment.
- Silo storage, batch formation, and ship loading are the main stages along the supply chain to test for mycotoxins.
- Some large producers have their own laboratories while medium and small producers use external lab services.
- The main factor that influences the decision to choose a method of mycotoxin contamination testing is reliable, accurate, and reproducible results.
- The time and cost of testing are the main disadvantages for agricultural companies.
- Bad sampling is the basis for bad results. The only way to prevent it is regular training.
- Audits of grains by buyers are not a typical practice.
The Grain and Feed Trade Association (GAFTA) is an international association with headquarters in London. It consists of traders, brokers, superintendents, analysts, fumigators, arbitrators, and other professionals in the international grain trade.
The Federation of Oils, Seeds and Fats Associations, Ltd. (FOSFA) is a professional international contract-issuing and arbitral body concerned exclusively with the world trade in oilseeds, oils and fats with 1,169 members in 88 countries.
GMP+ International is an internationally-operating private non-profit organization that owns and manages a feed certification scheme for Feed Safety Assurance (GMP+ FSA) and Feed Responsibility Assurance (GMP+ FRA). The GMP+ Feed Certification (FC) scheme facilitates feed companies to (responsibly) produce and deliver safe feed. It covers the entire feed chain, including activities like storage and transshipment, transport, and laboratory analyses.
The International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) is the international organisation for accreditation bodies operating in accordance with ISO/IEC 17011 and involved in the accreditation of conformity assessment bodies including calibration laboratories (using ISO/IEC 17025), testing laboratories (using ISO/IEC 17025), medical testing laboratories (using ISO 15189), inspection bodies (using ISO/IEC 17020), and proficiency testing providers (using ISO/IEC 17043).
Andrii is the CEO of BIOsens, an innovative biotechnology startup for rapid diagnostic solutions in food safety. According to the Financial Times, Andrii Karpiuk is one of eastern Europe’s 100 emerging technology stars. He is an expert in biotech and mycotoxin biosensors and with his team he won 1st place at the Intercontinental Startup Battle by Startup Network in San Francisco. Andrii was awarded the “2018 Emerging Biotech Leader of Ukraine” by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.
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